BLACK FILMMAKING IN THE 1920s:   Oscar Micheaux’s “The Symbol of the Unconquered”

Watching silent films over the past couple of days has reminded me of the movies I used to watch as a child with my mother. We tuned in on quiet Saturday afternoons after house cleaning was done and Mom turned off her Peabo Bryson, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye or Al Green records. All cozy on the couch, we viewed what seemed to be countless stories starring Shirley Temple or some white woman being grabbed by the shoulders and smacked in the mouth for being hysterical.

“Mmmm. Slapped the hell out of her, ” Mom always noted and we’d both lean in closer to see what would happen next before commenting further.

“She should have left his ass a long time ago” was a favorite. “Run now” was another. I loved that the films included so many silent portions in which we could discuss the better decisions we would have made had those developments happened to us. Admittedly, those movie-watching days with my mother is why I often exclaim at my screen today….only I swear a lot more than I did then.

Watching Oscar Micheaux‘s silent film The Symbol of the Unconquered was the perfect opportunity to cuss out my screen as the only competing sound was jazz drumming by the great Max Roach. (Though Max Roach was not yet born when this film was originally produced and distributed, his composition was added when the film was restored by The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film and Video in partnership with Turner Classic Movies and The Oscar Micheaux Society.)

FUN FACT: OSCAR MICHEAUX, REGARDED AS THE FIRST MAJOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FEATURE  FILMMAKER,  WROTE AND PUBLISHED SEVEN NOVELS IN ADDITION TO WRITING, DIRECTING AND PRODUCING MORE THAN 44 FILMS.

The movie begins with a dramatic scene. Dick Mason, an old Black prospector, lies on his death bed. His ridiculously light-skinned granddaughter and only surviving heir clinging to him, begging him to live on. Alas, old Dick meets his maker and poor, lonely Eve Mason (Iris Hall) leave Selma, Alabama for Oristown, Missouri to claim the land her granddaddy left her. Lost in Oristown, Eve meets the hotelier Jefferson Driscoll (Lawrence Chenault), a white-passing biracial man who hates Black people and literally choked his own momma Mother Driscoll (Mattie Wilkes) for blowing up his spot when he tried to marry a white woman on the sly. Though Eve does look like she too is a white woman, Driscoll recognizes her Blackness and refuses to rent a standard room to her. Instead Driscoll puts her in the barn with another Black patron whose physical discomfort with the poor accommodations Eve mistakes for perviness. Fearing molestation, Eve runs into the night and is found literally hugging a tree by young Black prospector Hugh Van Allen (Walker Thompson). They talk and Van Allen realizes that he lives on land near Dick Mason’s claim, Van Allen takes Eve to her granddaddy’s spots and gets her moved in. *****Post continues below image.*****

Image courtesy of Letterboxd.

Times passes and old self-hating Driscoll trades in hotel management for land acquisition pursuits. He, Tugi, an Indian Fakir (Leigh Whipper) and August Barr (Louis Dean) learn that Van Allen’s land is oil rich and tries to get Van Allen to sell it. Van Allen, of course, refuses. Trying to force the young prospector’s hand, they recruit horse thieves who also have part-time jobs as Klu Klux Klansmen to make Van Allen an offer he can’t refuse.  

As I watched this movie unfold, I had questions:

If Eve was so helpless, how the hell was she just gonna up and go to unsettled territory and carve out a living for herself in her granddaddy’s one-room cabin?

Who was Driscoll’s daddy?

Did brothers back then really believe that conking their hair and splitting it down the middle was a good look?

They couldn’t find an actual Indian to play Tugi?

Where can I get me a pair of these shin-high boots everybody wears in this film?

How and why did the Klansmen write such eloquent threats?

Where did Eve get that cowgirl get up from and why she wait til the end of the film to show off her riding skills?

In spite of my inquiries, I loved this movie. It was a Black story with Black cast members told by a Black filmmaker about authentic Black experiences of the day. And it had a happy ending! During a time, when the Klan was often regarded by many Americans as heroes ridding the country of criminal Blacks, this movie portrayed them as the crooks and terrorists they were. It was also confirmation of the horrors upon which Ida B. Wells-Barnett regularly reported: the Klan targeted Blacks with capital and/or economic power. The film also dared to call out some of the most egregious antics of “passing” folks.  

If you have 60 minutes and don’t need to look at your phone every 30 seconds, I highly suggest watching this movie. Until tomorrow.

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