PH at Courtisane: ‘Oscar Micheaux’s time is now’

Gautam Valluri

'...he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head'

‘…he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head’

As a gentle drizzle made its way down on to the streets of Ghent, the audience was ushered into the performance hall. ‘As a one-time exception, you are allowed to take your drinks into the hall’ assured the festival staff. Cushions were laid down on the floor for the viewers to sit and face a fall of burgundy velveteen curtains with a sharp square cut in the centre of them, sporting a 4:3 aspect ratio. A drum set was placed in front of the screen and soon the lights went out.

William Hooker’s voice echoed through the speakers as he started reciting a free-form poem in complete darkness. “Don’t touch!” was the command, growled into the microphone. One could already sense the energy of William Hooker. The film starts playing and Hooker takes his seat on the drum set with a single spot-light shining down on him. His drumming is electric and free form but also remarkably synchronized with every cut and every edit in the film. One gets the idea that Hooker’s watched this film at least a hundred times, he knows where every jump cut is, where every glitch is and when a character turns his head. Hooker runs through an arsenal of techniques from gentle brushing of the floor tom to dropping mallots on the cymbals. There was a section of the film where he does not use his hands at all, just his feet. One foot on the bass-drum pedal and another on the open hi-hats. He did not stop even once throughout the running time of the film.

William Hooker (by Peter Gannushkin)

William Hooker (by Peter Gannushkin)

The film itself is a rediscovered gem of the silent era. Body and Soul is set in an American Southern town. It is a film about the African-Americans living in an era where their only representation in film was largely through caricatures. The film is also very specific to a certain people. The people of rural Georgia, both black and white. It is also a critique of religious faith, specifically the regimented view of Christianity preached in that part of the world. The villain of the film happens to be a preacher, the Rt.Reverend Jenkins, a charming black man with a suspicious past played by Paul Robeson in his screen debut. Robeson also plays Sylvester, the well-meaning inventor who falls in love with the tragic heroine Isabella. Isabella’s mother Martha Jane is a strict follower of the Reverend’s church and has been saving all her money to buy a house when Isabella marries him. In the meantime, Isabella is in love with Sylvester, an inventor without a cent to his name. Martha Jane refuses Sylvester’s proposal to marry Isabella and instead arranges Reverend Jenkins to meet and court her. The stage is now set for a dark melodrama, the events of the film spiral down into increasingly difficult circles of guilt and faith.

It is a classical moral tale but surprisingly enough here the antagonist is a man of the cloth. It is also a cautionary tale about blind faith but at the same time very over the top. Oscar Micheaux’s direction is ruthless as it is eloquent. There is an instance in the film where Reverend Jenkins rapes Isabella. The film shows Isabella drying her wet clothes over a fire while the door opens and a close-up of the Reverend’s shoes announce his arrival. One can see the door close behind them, the frame fades to black as the inter-title ‘Half an hour later’ flashes on screen. We cut back to the exact same composition of the feet, this time walking towards the door which opens and closes as the Reverend exits. This is the exact same technique employed by Shekhar Kapur in his 1997 film Bandit Queen where we see Seema Biswas’s Phoolan Devi being dragged into a barn as the close-ups of the feet of various men are shown entering and exiting the barn imply her gang rape.

Coming back to Hooker’s drumming, it rises and falls and varies in tempo as the course of events of the film happen. During a scene set in a raging storm, Hooker really lets loose on his drums, pounding away at deafening rumbles and never once with contempt. You can feel his joy in his work. His shadow projected over one side of the hall across the balcony seats was itself an image to watch in awe. At the close of the film, Hooker flew out of his seat with mic in hand and said “Oscar Micheaux’s time is now.” The audience honored him with a standing ovation. He asked to be excused for a few minutes as he went in to change his shirt which was at this point soaked. He told the audience that he would like to have a conversation with them at the bar right after.

He was spotted a few minutes later in the theatre lobby, in a casual t-shirt, a pint of beer in hand and talking to the festival staff and making them laugh.

Coming up: A conversation from the second day between Billy Woodbery and Barbara McCullough from the festival’s DISSENT! section.