Life is a series of actions and reactions. Everything we do, everyone we meet, subtly changes us, moves us in faintly different directions, changing the course of our destinies. Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight was an unpleasant experience that dramatically changed my course of action. I had such high hopes for it, and was so bitterly disappointed and offended. But the experience lit a fire under me that hasn’t diminished in the slightest, though it has been a couple of weeks now.
I feel that there absolutely MUST be alternative voices in the film industry, a persistently racist industry “birthed” by D.W. Griffith’s bigot-porn, Birth of a Nation. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s character Major Warren in Hateful, who is surrounded by white people calling him (and me, basically) “nigger,” I found myself in an auditorium full of (mostly) white people who were thoroughly entertained, laughing at things that really weren’t funny. To be fair, the movie was beautifully shot, the music was stellar, and the dialogue and pacing were expert. And the over-the-top, revolting, cartoon violence is to be expected in Tarantino’s movies. Still, if I wanted to be called names for 187 minutes, and watch poor Samuel L. Jackson’s balls being blown off (a further degradation reminiscent of Ving Rhames’ character Marsellus being man-raped by a white man in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), I would expect some prize at the end. (Raven Burnes, you witnessed and endured a filmmaker belittling and degrading your people for over three hours. Heeeeere’s – A NEW CAR!)
But, the first amendment is the first amendment. Rather than continue to protest or complain, I’d rather respond. That desire – to be part of the emerging artists who are working on projects that uplift all people – projects such as movies, and comic books, and web series, where people of all colors are treated like real full-fledged people – led me to research the pioneering voices of the past. That research brought me to the amazing and satisfying discovery of Oscar Micheaux.
Micheaux was a black filmmaker and author who lived from January 2, 1884 to March 25, 1951. He was a contemporary of Griffith, though few (including me until a few days ago) have heard of him. He was highly prolific, making 43 films completely outside the Hollywood system. This is an amazing feat in any era. But, doing so as a black man during the Jim Crow years is nothing short of stunning. He wrote, produced, directed, and distributed his movies himself. His movies were meant to be a response to the racist narratives of works like Birth, and the blackface minstrel shows that were popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Micheaux’s films featured middle-class, educated black and multi-racial characters overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success. The fact that Micheaux could achieve so much in such a hostile environment leaves me wondering – what’s my excuse?
So, I view Micheaux as a professional mentor and role model, though he exited the planet long before I showed up. I respect what he tried to do, and I relate to the passion with which he approached his subject matter. Though D.W. Griffith’s name continues to be hailed as the “father of film”, and there are box sets upon box sets of his restored work, it is Micheaux’s legacy that inspires me to keep trying to do what I do. Regardless of how much money, if any, I ever make, regardless of how many people ever hear me, it is the work itself that matters. Whenever I make my own exit from the planet, I want to be proud of what I leave behind. Though we can never control the majority culture’s response to us, we do have absolute control over our own integrity. I am grateful to Oscar Micheaux for blazing the trail.
Whatever is yours to do in this world, do it right.