Due to segregation, a growing black middle class, and calls for black pride, blacks in the early twentieth century exploited the black consumer base to create music and film for exclusively black audiences. The release of the well-publicized, longest feature length and racist film, Birth of Nation (1915), was boycotted by the NAACP, sparked riots, and created a sense of urgency for realistic images of blacks in film.
There were already a number of films made by independent black film companies (William A. Foster's, Foster Photoplay Company, was already making films in 1913) but their distribution was so small that they were unknown in many parts of the country. Between 1913 and 1929, approximately 500 silent films were made by black filmmakers for black audiences. According to Thomas Cripps, silent films by black filmmakers peaked in 1921. Similar to photography during the end of the nineteenth century, race movies allowed blacks to portray themselves and control how blackness was constructed and performed. Pearl Bowser called these early films, morality plays. For the first time, in addition to creating images of themselves, blacks could share their culture with other members of their communities.
Race movies allowed blacks to temporarily forget that they were facing constant discrimination. By imitating white film genres (e.g. musicals), creating black versions of white screen stars, like the sepia Mae West (Bee Freeman), and allowing black patrons to sit in any part of the theatre, black filmmakers gave blacks an experience that was, in a sense, the same as passing as white.
Despite complex relationships with the media (many newspapers criticized the quality of black films) and limited distribution, black films amassed a significant black consumer base that was recognized by the white film community for the first time. Of those black filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux was the most prolific.
Many contemporary independent black filmmakers credit Oscar Micheaux with inspiring them to create films. Micheaux was a coal miner, pullman porter, homesteader, writer, businessman, and finally, a filmmaker. Grandson of a former slave, born in Illinois in 1884, and follower of Booker T. Washington, Micheaux believed in blacks creating their own resources. He was a self-made man who was determined to expose other blacks to middle class values.
Between 1918 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux produced approximately 40 feature length films. Micheaux's films presented many of the complex issues that existed in the black community, including discrimination based on skin color, classism, generational differences, violence, and passing. Due to his approach to these topics, he was a controversial figure during his time and many film historians still question his intentions in certain films, particularly those that address self-hatred. Two of his most controversial films, Veiled Aristocrats and God's Stepchildren are described at length below as examples of the treatment of passing in black films.
VEILED ARISTOCRATS AND GOD'S STEPCHILDREN|
Micheaux was very concerned about interracial relationships, the affects of skin color on relationships between blacks, and passing. His interest in passing may have been related to his own experiences (he was in love with a white woman but never pursued it because she was white), or the popularity of passing in literature and the media. In magazines and newspapers, passing was represented as an epidemic in urban centers. The above image contains an excerpt from a 1909 article in the Daily Ohio State Journal estimating that thousands of blacks were passing in Washington, D.C.
In Veiled Aristocrats (1932) and God's Stepchildren (1938), Micheaux depicted two families dealing with passing. The treatment of the passing characters are dramatically different in each of the films, and represent the contradictory emotions about passing in the black community when the films were produced. In God's Stepchildren, a film Micheaux made based on the film, Imitation of Life, the main character, Naomi, rejects her family (including her dark-skinned baby boy) to be white. While Micheaux clearly rejects racial passing, as Ronald Green notes, "cultural passing is a more complex matter by far." (195) Following are two clips from the film:
Naomi abandoning the Negro race Blacks and "legitimate business"
According to Gloria Anzaldua, in Latino families, women are the "transmitters of culture". Based on the number of times passing figures must first reject their mothers before leaving the black community, the same can be assumed about the popular understanding of black culture. In the first film clip (above left), Naomi first disowns her mother and then disowns the black race. This sets the conflict of racial identity against a larger cultural history, and was usually represented by filmmakers during this period as the ultimate rejection of self. By showing Naomi's suicide at the end of the film, Micheaux conveyed his disapproval of her rejecting blackness and the moral structure he asserted as part of black culture. This structure and the values it represented (labeled middle class by many of Micheaux's critics), demonstrated the interest Micheaux had in the power of families. In most of his films, the power to construct racial identity and acheive success is shifted away from popular culture and governmental structures to the individual, the black family, and the black community.
In the second film clip (above right), Micheaux developed the idea of success through individual effort and a return to "the beginning" through farming. By presenting three ways for blacks to try to obtain middle class status (i.e. passing, individual effort in "legitimate business", and "the line of least resistance" through illegitimate business), and clearly stating his preference (through the character who represents the moral center of the film) for legitimate business, Micheaux offered advice to blacks who were trying to change their lives, while criticizing those who decided to stop struggling (by passing or by choosing to pursue an illegitimate business opportunity).
Veiled Aristocrats, Micheaux's adaptation of a novel by Charles Chestnutt (House Behind the Cedars), also addresses the price of success through the story of the Walden family. Again, Micheaux placed the emphasis on way the black community perceived the Walden family by allowing this story to be told through the eyes of the middle class black community of Fayetteville. Light-skinned black lawyer John Walden convinces his mother that his sister's life would be better if she moved to another town with him and passed as white. Rena, John's sister, is already in love with another man, dark-skinned black businessman, Frank Fowler.
In Chesnutt's novel, Frank is not a working man; by making Frank middle class, Micheaux isolates passing as the point of difference between the two men. When Rena tells Frank about her brother's plan, he is not angry. In fact, his response is understanding and determination. He allows Rena to go with her brother, trusting that in the end things would work out for them. While she is away, passing as white with John, Frank Fowler's business grew and he established himself within the middle class black community. By using Frank Fowler as a foil to John Walden, Micheaux suggests that passing is not necessary when success is possible within the black community. Unlike mainstream passing films, where the passing characters are punished for deception, in Micheaux's films, the passing character is judged because they lack black pride .
In the scene when Naomi decides to return to Frank, and the black community, she declares that she is not white . Furthermore, she blames the socialization John experienced through education for his ability to pass. Education and class play significant roles in the passing character's ability to escape being black in both of Micheaux's films, Imitation of Life, Pinky, and Lost Boundaries. Since passing films allow the audience to question race, by pairing (and perhaps equating) passing with rags-to-riches stories, class identity is also represented as unstable. In fact, the most stable identity category in passing films is gender; almost all passing characters in film are women, and in all of the films, men, to a large extent, control the fate of the women by maintaining the status quo (i.e. exposing the passing character, struggling to keep women in the home). This did not change until the feminist movement. During and after the feminist movement, more films included male passing characters (e.g. Black Like Me, Watermelon Man, Tootsie), women passing as men(e.g. Yentil, Shakespeare in Love, and characters with ambiguous gender roles(e.g. To Wang Foo, With Love).
Micheaux's treatment of passing in the aforementioned films are, for the most part, similar to the ways that passing characters were treated in films by white filmmakers. However there are a few significant differences:
To learn more about the popular films from the thirties that served as a comparison to the films discussed on this page, please return to the previous page and select "Popular Films".