Review: Oscar Micheaux’s “The Exile”


Former South Dakota homesteader turned novelist Oscar Micheaux went into filmmaking almost on a whim, and became one of the most influential pioneers of the early decades of cinema. One of his earliest efforts, 1920’s Within Our Gates, was a direct response to, and repudiation of, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), providing a much needed corrective to the latter film’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic figures. Micheaux in his novels and his films (many of which were adaptations of his own novels) restaged autobiographical details in their scenarios, and this can clearly be seen in his 1931 feature The Exile, Micheaux’s first sound film.

The Exile fascinates not only with its vivid snapshot of black experience in America at that time, but also with its eccentricities of narrative and visuals. The now-scratchy sound of the film (which sometimes renders dialog inaudible) makes it seem like an archaeological find, which is the case of many of the films in this series – it is a miracle that any of them now exist at all. In The Exile, as in many of his other films, Micheaux used this medium to work out personal and social issues concerning race and the complex matrix that existed within black communities. The film’s protagonist, Jean Baptiste (Stanley Morrell) is a morally upstanding man about to marry Edith Duval (Eunice Brooks), who has just inherited a cavernous mansion, which she plans to turn into a decadent nightclub, which causes Jean to break off the engagement and travel to South Dakota and become a homesteader. While there, he meets Agnes Stewart (Nora Newsome), a woman from Scotland who has moved nearby with her father Jack (Charles R. Moore). After one of Micheaux’s time-traversing ellipses, they are declaring their love for one another, exchanging a passionate kiss. Since Agnes is initially identified as a white woman, this scene at first reads as a shocking (for its time) breaching of the taboo against miscegenation, which at that time was legally punishable. Jean, in fact, returns to Chicago soon afterward, telling her in a letter that he cannot in good conscience subject them both to the ostracism they will experience because of their relationship. Unbeknownst to him, Agnes’ father reveals to her that her mother was of “Abyssinian” (Ethiopian) extraction, making her black as well. Jean seems by all appearances to be of mixed race as well, and when a white friend asks him about it, he tells him in a key line of the film, “It’s all the same, you’re considered all colored.”

After Jean returns to Chicago, he falls back in with the old crowd, although it is clear that he doesn’t truly belong. He lives up to his nickname of “the exile,” and longs to return to South Dakota. He tries to bring Edith back with him, but she is murdered by a jealous, darker-skinned rival, and Jean is at first accused of the crime. Agnes hears about it and rushes to Chicago to rescue him, but in the sort of deus ex machina dénouement that Micheaux was quite fond of, the actual murderer is discovered and Jean is cleared. Agnes meets Jean soon after, and after another ellipsis, the last scene shows them together on a train back to South Dakota, where they will live together happily, since they can now live together freely, since their relationship does not in fact break color taboos.

Micheaux’s filmmaking style leads to some rather eccentric techniques of framing and editing, most notably in a scene where after Edith’s murder, her murder goes out the door followed by Jean going up to the door and knocking on it, all in the same shot. Also, major plot elements, such as Jean and Agnes falling in love and Agnes’ revelation that she is in fact of African descent, are hidden behind offstage ellipses. Many of Micheaux’s films often revealed color differences within the black community. Darker skinned characters were often the villains, such as Jango, the Ethiopian who murders Edith. The protagonists were light-skinned characters such as Jean who are thrown off track by a woman who leads him into temptation. However, there was some nuance to these characterizations; Edith, a light-skinned character, isn’t exactly angelic, since she initially drives Jean away by her insistence on making money off vices such as gambling and drinking. Even the murderer Jango was a studious man with great ambition who was diverted from his path through his relationship with Edith. Micheaux restaged autobiographical details of his life in all his films, often featuring protagonists who move back and forth from the city (usually Chicago) to the rural West, highlighting the contrast between the decadent city and the wholesome Western farmlands.