Peter Bagrov (George Eastman Museum)
America, 1920. The echoes of The Birth of a Nation, that racist masterpiece by D.W. Griffith, which was as innovative in terms of film language as it was controversial, are still in evidence. At the same time, a man from Southern Illinois distributes a film with an equally symbolic title: Within Our Gates. His name is Oscar Micheaux and his intention is to respond to Griffith’s work with all the force and means at his disposal. There is, however, one detail that should not be overlooked: Micheaux is an African-American director, the first to offer his people a different vision of American society and the conditions in which millions of men and women suffering the gravest and most ferocious racism deserved to live. Just as he had recounted in his autobiographical novels, Micheaux used film to transmit his message and to structure what would go on to become the African-American film industry. An artistic and entrepreneurial miracle conceived by a man blessed with an astonishing ability to overcome the obstacles that the society of the time placed in his path.
In the course of the research for the documentary Oscar Micheaux – The Superhero of Black Filmmaking we rediscovered one of his noirs from the 1930s, Murder in Harlem. Inspired by a notorious crime that took place in the state of Georgia in 1913, the film focuses on the murder of a young white woman by an Black night watchman at a chemical factory. Or so it seems at the outset of the investigations. It will take an enterprising lawyer, Henry Glory, to uncover the truth of what happened, which is very different from what was recounted in the hours following the crime. With Murder in Harlem, a remake of Micheaux’s own silent film from 1921, The Gunsaulus Mistery, the director reinterprets a case that inflamed American public opinion for many years, setting it within the Africann-American community. Micheaux himself appears in a cameo as a detective. It is the first and only time that we have heard his voice. A beautiful discovery when you remember that only four photographs and some rare behind-the-scenes footage from the 1920s survive of him.
Cast and Credits
T. alt.: Lem Hawkins’ Confession. Sog., Scen.: Oscar Micheaux. F.: Charles Levine. Scgf.: Tony Contineri. Mus.: Clarence Williams. Int.: Clarence Brooks (Henry Glory), Dorothy Van Engle (Claudia Vance), Andrew S. Bishop (Brisbane), Alec Lovejoy (Lem Hawkins), Laura Bowman (Mrs. Epps), Bee Freeman (The Catbird), Alice B. Russell (Mrs. Vance), Lionel Monagas, Sandy Burns, Lea Morris. Prod.: Oscar Micheaux, Alice B. Russell per Micheaux Pictures Corp. DCP. Bn.
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Pauline Saint-Hilaire (StudioCanal) and Roy Menarini (Università di Bologna)
Music composed and directed by Maud Nelissen, performed by The Sprockets:
Daphne Balvers (soprano saxophone), Frido ter Beek (alto saxophone), Peter Keijsers (trombone), Marco Ludemann (banjo, jazz guitar, mandolin), Alexander Vocking (contrabass), Rombout Stoffers (drums, effects, accordion) and Maud Nelissen (piano)