Oscar Micheaux, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
- Oscar Micheaux is remembered today as the first African-American filmmaker and as an outstanding entrepreneur of the early film industry. His films, some of which have been lost, include The Homesteader (1919), Within Our Gates (1920), The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), and Body and Soul (1925), and range from mysteries to westerns, from political commentaries to musicals.
- Both of his 1920 films -- Within Our Gates and The Symbol of the Unconquered -- respond directly to D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In answer to the several climactic scenes of attempted rape of white women by Black men around which the story of The Birth of a Nation centers, in Within Our Gates Micheaux flips the scene with a depiction of the victim as a Black woman and the perpetrator as a white man. The central section of The Symbol of the Unconquered, currently lost, hinges on the Black community's success in repelling a raid by the KKK, and much of the story serves to discredit the Klan's claims of justification for their violence against African-American communities.
- While many of Micheaux's films are classified as "Race Films," filmed for an African-American audience and shown in segregated, "colored only" theaters, Micheaux's films -- especially his earlier works -- reached an audience which included whites. His celebration of middle-class African-American experience provided hope for better times to come, and his practice of spreading blame across a racially diverse group of villanous characters (rather than directly pointing the finger at the white community as a whole) is an indication of his political sensibilities as a follower of Booker T. Washington.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) What is Micheaux saying with the character of Jefferson Driscoll, a "mulatto" character who passes for white and who is the main source of hatred towards African-Americans in the story? How is the character of Eve Mason provided as a foil for Driscoll? Why is it that different peoples -- Driscoll and Hugh Van Allen, for example -- see her racial identity differently?
- 2) Why is the story of this film set, not in Alabama, but in the Northwestern United States? What is Micheaux indicating with the location?
- 3) What are the sorts of bad behaviors that Micheaux's villians take part in throughout the film? What are their identities? When those behaviors and identities are brought together, what is the broader point Micheaux is making about the difference between good people and bad people?
- 4) Why is there a portrait of Booker T. Washington in the heroine's home?
- 5) Micheaux represents the KKK as "The Knights of the Black Cross" in the film (perhaps to avoid a lawsuit). What does he argue Klan members use the KKK to do? How does this contrast with the view of the KKK presented by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation?
- 6) How does Van Allen react to the threats against him by "The Knights of the Black Cross"? How does this compare to the behaviors that Griffith attributes to African-Americans in The Birth of a Nation?
- 7) At several key points in the film, Micheaux depicts the female characters as forming important alliances, as when Mary Barr unloads her grief with Eve Mason or when Driscoll's mother -- rejected by Driscoll -- comes to live with Eve. In fact, the turning point in the attack by "The Knights of the Black Cross" comes when Mary warns Eve that they are coming and Eve rides off to rally the African-American community to battle. Compare Micheaux's female characters to Griffiths. What are the differences? To what can these differences be attributed? What is Micheaux saying about the strength of the African-American community with these characters?
- 8) Examine the different reactions between Hugh Van Allen and Eve Mason when it becomes clear to Hugh that she is African-American like himself. To what can those differing reactions be construed? What does this very complicated moment reveal about Micheaux's political and social attitudes about African-Americans in American society?
Further resources for studying Oscar Micheaux and The Symbol of the Unconquered:
- The Oscar Micheaux Society Home Page, maintained by the Duke University Program in Film & Video.
- Gerald R. Butters, Jr., "From
Homestead to Lynch Mob: Portrayals of Black Masculinity in Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates", Journal for MultiMedia History, Vol. 3 (2000).
- John DeBartolo's Oscar Micheaux, Micheaux Films and "Race Films", from Silents Majority, a silent film study group in California.
- The Internet Movie Database's brief biography of Oscar Micheaux
- Moffit Library's Media Resource Center, "Oscar Micheaux: A Bibliography of Materials in the UC Berkeley Library."
- Don Shorock's Oscar Micheaux Homepage.
- Erika Muhammad "The Preservation of The Symbol of the Unconquered (1921): A Conversation with Pearl Bowser," in Screening Noir Online.
- Ervin Dyer's "Filmmaker Micheaux countered stereotypes of black America," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Wednesday, February 02, 2000).
- Michael Mills's Midnight Ramble, a site about "Race Movies."
- Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
- J. Ronald Green, Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
- Bernardi, Daniel, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).
- Henry Sampson, Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995).
- Manthia Diawara, ed., Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993).
- Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender courses in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Tuesday 12 June 2001.