The name Oscar Micheaux seldom rings a bell, even among the most fervent cinematic cultists. His directorial career is a rarefied one which readily faded into the annals of film history and has only recently exhumed for retrospect and reevaluation. Widely regarded as the father of African-American Cinema, Micheaux was a veritable artistic polymath. Before his death in 1954, he generated seven novels and forty-four films after random occupational stints as a Chicago stockyards prole and South Dakota homesteader. Of the films, most were financed independently and served as a conduit for the director’s racially progressive, felicitously middlebrow agenda. The Girl from Chicago is the archetypal Micheaux film. Aside from its uniformly black cast and catchpenny production values, all Micheaux staples, the film limns occasionally grim social realities in a way that is at once flagrant, yet innocuously subversive.
The story is a garish pulp pastiche. An unflappably suave federal agent (Carl Mahon) occupies a Mississippi delta town, seeking to topple the community’s ubiquitous gangster (John Bennett). He handily succeeds and, in the process, falls head over heels for a waifish ingénue (Starr Calloway). The smitten couple eventually relocates to Harlem, where a new set of difficulties presents itself. Their close acquaintance is sentenced to death for offing a Puerto Rican racketeer while the real culprit, an aggrieved moll cum jazz diva (Grace Smith), flees with a hefty cache of cash. All loose ends are inevitably tied up before the end titles, and the agent and his blushing bride are off to Bermuda for the honeymoon.
From an artistic standpoint, The Girl from Chicago is sloppy and incult. Despite its chaotic plotting, the film’s pacing is soporific. Micheaux’s shot compositions are blasé and generally off-center. His troupe of mostly non-actors is prone to phony inflections, poor reaction times and scenery-chomping histrionics. Moreover, their tinny dialogue is frequently subsumed on the soundtrack by the drone, crackle and hiss of some perpetual white noise. Always working with paltry budgets, Micheaux never developed the accomplished acumen of Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles (whose 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song kick-started that decade’s now infamous Blaxploitation movement) or most of his filmmaking scions.
However, to zero in on Micheaux’s technical maladies is to miss his marked achievement. Namely, he could seamlessly weave pointed commentary into an onscreen conversation. The Girl from Chicago features a raft of off offhand, almost flippant exchanges relating to problematic and unaddressed injustices towards the African American community. In one scene, an affable idler articulates within a joke the way in which Southern blacks were unlawfully arrested and impressed into labor at the behest of white landowners. In another, Micheaux outlines the coercive methods of a lottery ticket peddler. The man rants, rebukes and invokes the will of the Lord while his client, whose sister lies moribund in a nearby hospital, bites her lip in agitation. No one is wholly exempt from the unwelcome outreach of crime and corruption.
Moreover, The Girl from Chicago gives African Americans an across-the-board claim on identity. He juxtaposes troublesome stereotypes—the lazy oaf, the angry black woman, etc.—with portraits of nascent high school graduates, dexterous entertainers and successful homeowners. And in an age when Hollywood had sidelined minorities to unflattering supporting roles, Micheaux made his performers front-and-center stars of their own narratives. Granted, the romantic melodrama, cheap spy novel folderol of The Girl from Chicago is complete fantasy. But fantasy, however outlandish, can also address pertinent issues and provide a heady first step toward empowerment. For all the laughable, low-budget aberrances of his work, Oscar Micheaux carved out a frankly laudable legacy for himself.