“If Oscar Micheaux was a fully conscious artist, he was the greatest genius the cinema ever produced,” J. Hoberman once wrote, pondering the tantalizing discontinuities and infelicities of the black pioneer’s by-hook-or-by-crook style. A self-made (show)man, the extraordinary Micheaux (1884-1951) worked as a train porter, homesteaded in South Dakota, and wrote semiautobiographical novels of love and fortunes lost — before sweating through 40-odd films. Over half are lost, but most of the surviving works are screening in the smorgasbord “Faded Glory.” The series is tied to a Columbia conference on Micheaux and pre-war black independent cinema—a category that would remain an academic proposition for most without this airtime (previewed somewhat at Anthology last spring).
Micheaux produced and directed race pictures, i.e., films intended for black audiences in a segregated market. Often conducting business fast and loose, he pursued both taboo themes and saleable properties — making for what biographer Patrick McGilligan calls a combination of Spike Lee and Roger Corman. Be forewarned, your mileage may vary, but Micheaux never let up in terms of material, often in dialogue with the mainstream: lynching in Within Our Gates, a response to Birth of a Nation; “passing” in God’s Stepchildren, aimed at Stahl’s Imitation of Life; intermarriage in The Exile; blind faith in Body and Soul; and, well, Broadway in Swing!.
Also screening are films from perhaps Micheaux’s nearest competitor Spencer Williams (Blood of Jesus), plus selections including two Hollywood shows, Hallelujah! and Vincente Minelli’s Cabin in the Sky. And I haven’t seen Eleven P.M. but any movie with a writer on deadline passing out and dreaming of a man turning into a dog deserves a fair hearing.