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'Other and Different Scenes': Oscar Micheaux's Bodies and the Cinematic Cut

From: Wide Angle
Volume 21, Number 4, October 1999
pp. 6-19 | 10.1353/wan.2004.0001

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Wide Angle 21.4 (1999) 6-19

Oscar Micheaux's Bodies and the Cinematic Cut

David A. Gerstner


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Figure 1
Dr. Vivian and Sylvia in Within Our Gates, dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1920. Video frame enlargement.

Black and White Fathers of Cinema

Jane Gaines characterizes D. W. Griffith and Oscar Micheaux as the white and black "fathers" of American cinema. Like Griffith, Micheaux, as Gaines points out, laid new creative groundwork provided by cinematic properties. Moreover, the directors used melodramatic devices to heighten both spectator response and the spectacle unfolding on the screen. The aesthetic choices of the filmmakers, needless to say, were channeled toward different cultural ends. Gaines rightly argues, for example, that the rape scene between Sylvia and Girdlestone in Within Our Gates can be read as "a reaction to that other controversial scene —the 'Gus chase scene' from The Birth of a Nation." What is striking, however, about the dialogue between these films is their uncannily similar treatment of narrative through formal cinematic devices. Yet, as Henry Louis Gates reminds us repetition is not equal to sameness: the films have, in other words, "everything to do with each other and, then again, absolutely nothing." I want to argue that through the use of the cinematic edit Micheaux reveals the African-American body—specifically the male body—as one torn asunder by the violent irony of white culture that, on the one hand, demands his assimilation while, on the other, rejects his very presence.

If Micheaux and Griffith are the "fathers" of black and white cinema to what extent can their patriarchal contributions be considered a reaffirmation of or resistance (in the case of Micheaux) to white Anglo-Saxon ideology? What I argue below is that indeed Micheaux's films can be read as a "reaction" to Griffith but not so much as a negation of the "white father's" formal designs of cinematic aesthetic technology. Rather, the "white father" and the""black father" both turned to a technique of editing—parallel editing to be precise—for what Gaines refers to in Micheaux's work as a "temporally ambiguous" effect. Micheaux's and Griffith's similar use of the cut, however, must be traced along a different set of cultural and aesthetic paths. Micheaux's use of the melodramatic mode and its formal dimensions rehearsed the genre while investing it with provocative treatment of race issues where his aesthetic was, as Michelle Wallace puts it, "often inspired and effective." Indeed, the use of the same technique and generic conventions (parallel editing, melodrama) does not necessarily imply ideological sameness.

In recent years Griffith-film scholarship has turned its energies toward situating the director uneasily within (or against) the history of the "classical Hollywood cinema" mode of production. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker go so far as to argue that it is "more useful to see Griffith as a representative of non-continuity cinema.""6 Whereas the classical model of cinema is generally understood as an industrial mode of production that yielded an illusory and cohesive filmic representation of narrative space and time, Elsaesser and Barker point to Griffith's formal narrative structure as one "always based on an act of splitting the narrative core or cell, and obtaining several narrative threads which could then be woven together again." The editing technique that "splits" the narrative in this way, Elsaesser and Barker contend, is parallel editing that, in the hands of Griffith, "pentrate[s] not only [his] formal procedures, but structure[s] his very conception of the diegetic material, including his view of the family, or morality, sexual difference and history." The cut, especially the technique of parallel editing here, is thus inseparable from Griffith's ideological concerns.

For Tom Gunning, parallel editing, prior to Griffith, introduced a "narrator system" that complicated the simple presentation of action in, say, early "chase films" where "pursuers and pursued were shown together, moving through each shot, never separated by the editing pattern." In these early chase sequences a "strict homology" was maintained between spatial action and its temporal linearity. Parallel editing, however, "asserts itself" as a narrator system because the edit seizes "control over the ordering of the film...



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