Director: Oscar Micheaux
Producer: Oscar Micheaux
Screenwriter: Oscar Micheaux
Release date: November 29, 1920
Cast: Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault, Mattie Wilkes, Louis Dean, Leigh Whipper, Jim Burris, E.G. Tatum, James Burrough, George Catlin, Edward Fraction, Edward E. King, Lena L. Loach
Link to film: http://sdsu.kanopystreaming.com/video/symbol-unconquered
“The 1920s was also widely known for … a period of African-American literary and artistic cultural growth.” (pg, 1 Rosenberg). Oscar Micheaux, is recognized as the first successful major African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century and one of the most profound producers of race related films. Micheaux’s films were created during a period of change and growth within the black community, because they depicted the lives of Black people during this era. He used his films to address racial injustices, racial tensions between Blacks and whites, and the obstacles Black people faced while attempting to establish themselves in society. His films often highlighted the severity of lynching, white mob violence, job discrimination, sexual and economic exploitation. Micheaux films provided a counter narrative to the ideals constructed by whites that emphasized negative stereotypes about Blacks.
Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 silent film, “The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK opens with Evon Mason a fair skinned African American woman inheriting her dying grandfather’s, Dick Mason land and home in Oristown. After traveling from Selma, Alabama Evon decides to stay in the Driscoll Hotel, but unbeknownst to her, the owner Jefferson Driscoll has a strong hatred for people of African descent and as a result makes her sleep outside in the barn when he discovers her race by looking at her eyes. Jefferson Driscoll is a mixed race black male who has been passing for white ever since his mother revealed his race to his white significant other when he was younger. After suffering outside through a storm, Evon meets a young prospector named Hugh Van Allen, who just so happens to be her new neighbor and offers to help her find her grandfather’s home. Driscoll sells stolen cattle to Van Allen which leads to a fight between the two. Driscoll seeks revenge with the help of Ku Klux Klan member, and continually leaves threatening messages outside of Van Allen’s place to get him to move out of his home. Afterwards Van Allen learns that his land they wanted his land because of the abundance of oil fields. He later Van Allen has become one of the oil kings, running his own company. Evon comes to deliver a letter from The Committee for the defense of the colored race that reveals Eve’s black parentage, something that Van Allen was completely unaware of. The film ends with Van Allen learning the truth and the two of them declaring their love for each other.
Through the lens of gender, this film illustrates the gender performances of heterosexual men and women in connection to race during this time period. Judith Butler argues that the performativity of gender, is not a singular act but repetition and ritual through the naturalization in the context of the body (Butler pg. 6). Meaning that men and women are boxed into specific categories and are expected by society to behavior in a manner that is associated with each gender. In the film, I counted a total of 4 women, 2 white women, Evon and and Jefferson’s mother and the rest of the cast were men so it was easy to analyze to the gendered performances. In the film, men more specifically white men are depicted as authoritative figures and more dominant in contrast to the women and Black men. In this case the KKK are trying to prove that they are superior by sending threatening messages and coming to attack Van Allen’s home in search of him to lynch him for not “following” orders. There is also a huge difference in the way men are dressed, the majority of them wearing nice pants and constantly fighting to prove their manhood. While the women all are wearing dresses, heels and faces full of make-up. Throughout the movie Evon slept outside in the storm, rode on the back of a horse, and slept in a cabin but her hair and makeup remains intact.
Butler asserts that one is considered a woman if she functions as one within the dominant heterosexual framework and if a woman questions this, she could lose a sense of place in gender (Butler, pg. 2). This is really interesting because it hold a lot of truth when talking about white women but historically has not been the case for women of color. For example, Jefferson’s white significant other was shown as being fragile, and pure she did not speak much at all just sat gazed into her boyfriend’s eyes and was dependent on Jefferson of course taking into account the fact that she taught he was a white man. Similarly, Evon is a vulnerable character that is frequently in need of a man to help her navigate her way around the new city and expects Van Allen who is a stranger to protect her from danger.
Butler argues that the construction of race and gender work within the constraints of one another thus setting the stage for racial gender norms. (Butler, pg. 7).”Gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibility human, and what will be considered “real” (Butler, pg. 8).”
The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK was created for an African-American middle and lower class audience and played in segregated “colored only” theaters but it even reached white audiences (THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED, 2017) It was advertised to black people with slogans such as “ come see the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan” which was an extremely bold move in the 1920’s. This film challenged the values within Black and white communities but it also got a lot of backlash from the press and even state censors and was not as popular as it is now back then (THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED, 2017). The movie itself did not receive any awards but Oscar Micheaux received an abundance of awards such as the Oscar Micheaux Award for excellence and a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame.
Butler, J. (2008). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Oscar Micheaux, THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED (1920). (n.d.). Retrieved February
The Symbol of the Unconquered. (1920). Kino Lorber Edu.