A Man Ahead of His Time: The Silent Films of Oscar Micheaux, Through the Lens of Juneteenth

Gary Simmons and Naima J. Keith in conversation about representation and the foundations of Black moviemaking

Oscar Micheaux is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker

  • 15 June 2021

‘If I were to just show the beauty of who and what we are and celebrate certain identities without touching some of the scars that make us who we are, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m supposed to do. You can't be afraid to touch things.’—Gary Simmons

Gary Simmons: Well, it's good to see you.

Naima J. Keith: Yes. It's good to see you. It's been a long time. Obviously, we've both been quarantined in our respective areas. How have you been, how has everything been? Your hair is long!

GS: I've been pretty good. My hair is long. Look at me!

NK: Thank you for inviting me to be in conversation with you.

Installation view, ‘Gary Simmons: Fade to Black’ at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, 2017-2018. Photo: Brian Forrest

Film still, Gary Simmons and Naima J. Keith, on site for ‘Gary Simmons: Fade to Black,’ a site-specific work at the California African American Museum in 2018. Courtesy HRDWRKER

GS: There's nobody I would have rather wanted to do this with, for so many reasons. I respect you enormously and working together was one of the highlights of my career. Seriously. [Keith curated a long-term lobby exhibition of Simmons’ work from 2017 to 2019 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Titled ‘Gary Simmons: Fade to Black,’ the installation featured massive text-based mural paintings emblazoned with titles of vintage silent films starring all African-American casts.]

NK: It was definitely one of my career highlights. I shed a little tear when the show came down, even after us ‘illegally’ extending it for a very long time!

GS: It was joy. I think part of that is the intellectual rigor you put behind your projects and how you get involved. You had a vision and then let me just run down the freeway. There's a trust element that you need to find between artist and curator, so that it's not just somebody facilitating an exhibition. You have to work hand in hand. It doesn't happen all the time.

NK: It was amazing seeing what that project could mean for a Black space. Right? We had so many people come in, posing in front of it for selfies. People said, ‘I went back home and I watched all the films.’ People got married in front of it!

GS: I still remember sitting on that bench in that huge lobby saying to myself: ‘I just know she wants me to do this whole room. I know she wants me to do this whole room. That's why she got me here.’

NK: I was just like: ‘I don't know what I’m going to have to do to bribe him into doing this.’ But I could see it. There are moments in your life when you just see it. And I knew there are only a few people who could do something like that in that kind of space.

Gary Simmons in his studio, 2021. Photo: Erik Carter

GS: When we started thinking about doing something for ‘Ursula’ magazine to talk about Juneteenth, I immediately thought about that show and us working together. I started thinking about what the idea of Juneteenth even means and how it's moved over the years from more of a localized concept to a global one. That show that we did together represented, to me, in a visual art sensibility, what post-emancipation produces. I started thinking again about a figure like Oscar Micheaux who, although he wasn't the first Black filmmaker and producer, was the biggest and most prolific. He was a writer, a filmmaker, a producer. And he gathered practically every Black actor and actress working at that time. Most of the folks who worked with him were first-generation children of slaves, and being a first-generation kid myself from the West Indies, I know what it means to take on such a heavy legacy and produce something. If you look at the types of films he produced, the politics he dealt with — not only the external politics of negotiating ways for a Black voice to create critical films in those times but also the way he looked inward, to who we are as Black folks and some of the problems that exist within ourselves, how we deal with others, how we deal with gender, with relationships — it's just incredible. Not to mention the way he rolled out Black female figures in his art. When we were doing our show, I did an insane amount of research, and I became obsessed with Micheaux, because if you think about the time in which he works, the fact that he was a child of slaves, his ability to come through that and be self-critical as a Black figure, is astonishing. He's probably one of the most important producers in the 20th century of Black bodies and Black issues. He doesn’t get as much acclaim as he should. And that's really why I wanted to talk to you about some of his films in more in depth.

NK: To anchor this conversation just for the record in the context of Juneteenth with some background, the day is basically a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. It's officially celebrated on June 19th, hence the name Juneteenth. It was originated in 1865. And the reason why it's celebrated, as we know, is because while the Emancipation Proclamation officially ended slavery as of 1863, it wasn't until two years later, in Texas and some other places, that Union troops finally arrived to proclaim an end to the war and the end of slavery and African Americans learned that they were free and celebrations of that moment began in Galveston, Texas, and eventually spread through the South. Freedom is a loose term, a term that really is a name only, right? There were several other events that happened after Juneteenth, the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, of course. For you, Gary, what is it about Juneteenth that feels particularly significant?

GS: It’s a tough question to answer because of the things you just said. There are other holidays, other markers of the end of slavery, that could easily be celebrated. To what degree is Juneteenth distinguished from the others?

NK: It’s interesting for me because I don't really remember learning about Juneteenth in school. I feel like it's a very Black holiday. I feel like it's something that it's celebrated within families, within groups and neighborhoods.

GS: Like Kwanzaa.

NK: Yes, exactly. It's a very real thing, but it's only now receiving a level of national attention. For me, growing up, it really was this under-known-yet-known-within-your-family type of holiday. It made me think about how everyone didn't just wake up free, that there were still people being enslaved even after slavery was supposed to have ended.

Congregation in ‘Within Our Gates’ (1920). Courtesy Kino Lorber

Evelyn Preer in Oscar Micheaux’s film ‘Within Our Gates’ (1920). Courtesy Kino Lorber

‘In the context of Micheaux, I think it’s really important to talk about those tough, unsettling films coming right in the midst of the rise of the Harlem Renaissance … the expansion of the NAACP — all of these movements to advance the conversation around Black people and to think about image and status.’—Naima J. Keith

Gary Simmons, Bonham Theatre, 2010 © Gary Simmons

GS: I don't think Juneteenth was ever even mentioned to me as a kid. I don't think I heard the term Juneteenth until maybe the last 15, 20 years. My daughter, on the other hand, now knows all about it and she's historically informed in a way my generation just was not. I think kids are far more aware of identity, and in a different kind of way. And, my daughter being a mixed race child, I think, makes her hyperaware of issues that are germane to who and what she is.

NK: It’s amazing to think about how, not even 50 years after the first Juneteenth, you have someone like Oscar Micheaux making ‘Within Our Gates.’ You have the freedoms that happened between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth and the 13th Amendment and then you have a young Black man coming along in their wake to make silent films within the span of a lifetime, right? Micheaux was born in 1884, so he grew up with the immediate legacy of all these things happening. It blows my mind to think that someone seeing that film could have experienced firsthand so much the history it was showing.

GS: I think that one of the things that's interesting about us as Black folks, in general, is that we love to celebrate the highs. And there are certain aspects of who and what we are that are pushed into the closet, so to speak. You look at something, for example, like the paper bag test [an exclusionary practice in which certain African American churches, clubs and other organizations admitted applicants only if their skin was as light as a brown paper bag]. You look at something like people passing. There's a validation based on exactly how much melanin you have in your skin. There are those things that we don't really like to air out. You think back to Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ and how it confronted things like colorism. A lot of the criticism of that movie was from Black folks themselves who said: ‘Listen, we don't need to be airing this out to white people, to let them know that we're conflicted about this shit.’ And Spike was like: ‘Hell no! We need to open this up and really explore this.’ How do Black men treat Black women, for example? All of those things that we don't like to talk about, that make us uncomfortable, that don't celebrate the great things about Black culture, those things that still hold us down. Micheaux was one of the first people to take the cover off and say, ‘Hey, these very complicated things exist.’ And if you look at the time period when he was taking that cover off and exposing them, they were really raw wounds at the time, even now. I mean, just the idea of seeing a lynching exposed, shown on screen. All of this being produced by a Black filmmaker was shocking back then. Micheaux confronted things and asked questions like, ‘Do we treat our women like this?’ He was brave enough to say: ‘There is an entire landscape, the good and the bad. We're not just going to sit here and highlight kings and queens.’ He was a brave filmmaker, to be putting that out there not only for white audiences but definitely for Black audiences.

NK: Do you remember the first Micheaux film you ever saw?

GS: It might've been ‘Within Our Gates,’ but it also could have been ‘Body and Soul.’ For me, ‘Body and Soul’ is an incredible film. Paul Robeson, as a figure, is right up there as a hero, in my book, with Jack Johnson, the boxer—guys who really pushed the limits of what was perceived as acceptable. And I would have to put Micheaux in that category, too, because he's the one who facilitated a lot of what Robeson was allowed to do. And then he took it from there. It's almost like a race and they hand each other the baton. Robeson plays two characters in the film, identical brothers—one a preacher, a charlatan, of sorts, and the other a good guy. The emotion that Robeson is able to put out there in a silent film format is unbelievable. In silent film, your acting style had to be overemphasized, everything almost overacted, but Robeson really carried films through his ability to translate emotion through his really complex and nuanced facial expressions.

NK: I remember that in our show one of the first film titles you saw, if you read the work from left to right, was ‘Birth of a Nation.’ It’s, obviously, such a highly inflammatory but still advanced film for that time, in 1915. Historians often site ‘Within Our Gates’ as being a response to ‘Birth of a Nation,’ although didn't describe it as such. He said it was more of a response to the time, a commentary on period in American and African-American history. You seem to really be interested in that relationship or that conversation about ‘Birth of a Nation’ and what it triggered, right, whether Black filmmakers were presenting an alternative to it, claiming their own space and saying: ‘I'm not going to allow that to be the only narrative that is out there about, especially, Black men.’

GS: I think that ‘Within Our Gates,’ though Micheaux doesn't really talk about it like that, is a response to Griffiths. There's a limited amount of response that he can actually give, but what he does give is enormous. There are whole other layers of representation that exist within the film.

NK: Do you think Micheaux was trying to take on too many things at once, risking losing his audience?

Film still from ‘Body and Soul’ (1925) by Paul Robeson

Gary Simmons, Body and Soul, 2017 © Gary Simmons

GS: I think he was really revolutionary in doing it that way. I see Oscar Micheaux a little bit in my own work in the sense that there are multiple points of access to the film or to the art. And I think that Micheaux allows for all these avenues to exist. One of the important things about his films, especially in having light skin, brown skin, dark-complexion folks, is that there are many points of access, of identity, that you can grab onto. He could easily have used an all light-skin cast because that would probably would have been more accessible and commercially viable at the time. But he gave a stage to folks and voices that never would be seen otherwise. And it showed the vulnerabilities of who and what we are that you never would have seen elsewhere at that time. Actually, I would dare to say, you don't even see it today. There are certain politics that Micheaux was challenging back then that aren't challenged at all today.

NK: I agree. Your work has touched on so many different topics and you've made work that sparks a lot of important conversations, but are there topics that you feel that even you won't touch?

GS: There's no topic I wouldn't touch. None. I think that's where I look to somebody like Micheaux as a mode. You should be uncomfortable in a Gary Simmons show, to some extent, or if it makes you uncomfortable, that's a conversation we need to have. If I were to just show the beauty of who and what we are and celebrate certain identities without touching some of the scars that make us who we are, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m supposed to do. You can't be afraid to touch things. The minute you start to say, ‘I'm not going to touch that,’ maybe that's exactly the thing you should touch.

NK: In the context of Micheaux, I think it’s really important to talk about those tough, unsettling films coming right in the midst of the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, and of the rise of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA and Black Nationalism, in the middle of the expansion of the NAACP — all of these movements to advance the conversation around Black people and to think about image and status. And then you have films that are talking about rape and assault and other things that are very difficult. I know ‘Body and Soul,’ for example, was very much censored and that Micheaux essentially had to gut much of the film to get a license to show it because New York State movie officials claimed that in its original form it would have incited crime and it was irreligious and immoral. And Micheaux wasn’t the only one. You have, in 1930, ‘Borderline,’ the Kenneth Macpherson movie with Paul Robeson, that took on the issue of interracial relationships and the hatred and violence surrounding that issue. Why was a film like ‘Borderline’ particularly of interest to you?

GS: I think the taboo-ness of it. I mean, it’s still an issue to this day. I think that although we are more comfortable seeing and being in those relationships, it still makes folks uncomfortable. There still is a ‘Why are you with her? Why are you with him?’ kind of mentality — that sense of ‘He or she is ours and you need to step away,’ that kind of thing. I think we're more comfortable with mixed-race kids now than with the actual couples that made them. It's odd to say, but it's true. The truly remarkable thing about some of those early films was how they touched on things that we’re still going through. It wasn’t so long ago, easily within your memory and mine, when it was highly unusual to see a Black actor kiss a white actor and there were certain actors that refused to do it, because of the fallout that would come from that, chiefly for the white actor, of course. You know, some of these things haven’t changed as much as we think they have. I remember back at our opening — which, by the way, was packed! It was like a Studio Museum opening and a block party at the same time; it was just incredible to see that many Black folks having a great time at a visual art exhibition. It touched me in a huge way.

Gary Simmons, Untitled (Hollywood), 2009. Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art © Gary Simmons

NK: I think one of the criticisms we read over and over again is about the depiction of Black men in the history of film, and so it’s interesting to think about how those early film by Black directors and writers depicted Black men. Robeson occupies different characters in ‘Body and Soul,’ not all on the up and up. Given that there were so few examples at that time of Black men on film, I wonder why it was important for Micheaux to drill down the way he did, especially in the wake of something like ‘Birth of a Nation,’ which depicted Black men as sexualized brutes.

GS: Well, I think about the importance of self-criticality. You and I both have children — you have a son and I have a teenage daughter and we both know how important is for them to have a self-critical voice. Especially for raising young Black men, for example, I think it’s crucial to emphasize that sensitivity is not a negative thing, that being a strong figure but also one who is affected by sensitive things is a positive, something that makes you a more whole human being. You look through the history of film, and Black males specifically are shown with a limited view of who they are as humans, a very one-dimensional view. Micheaux, in his own way, was showing that there's a multifaceted construct to the Black male, not all positive and not all negative — complex and human. I think if you look at Spike, who is one of the greatest filmmakers that we've had in the last 50 or 60 years, and no big criticism against him, but he has a tendency to represent male characters who aren’t as multifaceted as they should be. Especially when you look at a movie like ‘Moonlight’ and see what Barry Jenkins did in that characterization. It’s a fabulous film. I think he is starting really to get down into who and what we are. And there are certain sensitivities that he's uncovering — sexuality, so many other things, things that make some people uncomfortable. It creates a much more layered understanding of who we are. And I really think some of those things started with Micheaux.

NK: How have you thought about Black masculinity within your own work?

GS: Black masculinity is at the core of a lot of the work that I've done. Early on, I used to use a lot of flowers and I did a lot of things with live plants and they were really quite charged. I was literally making a Klan symbol out of flowers! [‘Garden of Hate,’ 1992.] The floral thing pulled the rug out from under a certain kind of perception of masculinity and softened it. And hidden there in the beauty was this underlying hatred and violence. It’s important for masculinity to be confronted and considered.

NK: I was thinking about your latest work, too, in which it seems you’ve been looking more deeply at the female characters within these silent films. How do you think about that, about important figures like Hattie McDaniel?

GS: Well, I can't project into their experiences the way I can as a man with male actors and figures. But I can be sympathetic to a certain point. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what Black women actors went through back then. I think that the women had it tougher, much tougher, having to deal with ideas about how they were perceived and about their sexuality and what that represented, but also how they were seen internally, by Black folks ourselves. That's a lot of baggage to have to drag through the airport. It’s really tough sledding. You look at somebody like McDaniel and you can’t emphasize enough what an amazing woman she was, an American figure who more people should know about and know what she represents. She and women like her were simply buried further in history than the men. They practically disappeared. And it’s way past time that they should be found again. - Honoring Juneteenth and in collaboration with artist Gary Simmons, visit our Screening Room, featuring ‘Within Our Gates’ (1920) written, produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux. The silent film will be free to stream on our site from Friday – Sunday, 18 – 20 June 2021.

Gary Simmons uses icons and stereotypes of American popular culture to create works that address personal and collective experiences of race and class. Born in New York in 1964, Simmons received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1988, and his MFA from CalArts in 1990, studying under the tutelage of Charles Gaines, Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Catherine Lord, Mike Kelley, and others. For his immersive installation, ‘Fade to Black’ (2017), for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, Simmons created five monumental wall murals featuring the titles of vintage silent films; the names of largely forgotten movies and African American actors appeared in big typewriter-style letters blurred with ghostly traces.

Naima J. Keith is Vice President of education and public programs at LACMA. Previously, Keith was the deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum, where she curated several exhibitions including Gary Simmons: Fade to Black (2017–9). She was the 2017 recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize in recognition of her contributions to the field of African American art history and is co-artistic director of Prospect.5 in New Orleans in 2021. Before CAAM, Keith was associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2011–16). Keith holds degrees from Spelman College and UCLA and is a proud native of Los Angeles.

Learn more about 'Gary Simmons: Fade to Black', a site-specific work of art that was on view at the California African American Museum in 2018, here.