“What do modern iterations of racial uplift look like in popular film?” I’ve been sitting with this question after a recent session of my film course on black religion. Sparked by our viewing and engagement with Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), notions of racial progress have been at the forefront of my mind, in part because it is a prominent theme in so many early twentieth-century films, but also because the modern threads connecting to that past seem so blatant. After reviewing Micheaux’s film in class and returning home to see various commercials for the litany of Tyler Perry’s shows on the Oprah Winfrey Network and Kevin Costner’s two upcoming films Black or White and MacFarland, USA, it appears that the weaving of the trope of racial progress—and its broadly applicable, cross-racial implications—has been made quite clear.
Oscar Micheaux certainly had his own visions of racial uplift. In the silent film, Within Our Gates, we learn about ongoing tensions between blacks in the North and South, historical struggles against racial inequality, and the various ways that blacks strived to exist as human beings in a social and historical context that rendered them inhuman. The film, which was written and directed by Micheaux, centers on the story of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), an educated, black woman who resides in Boston with her cousin, Alma Pritchard, and her fight to promote the cause of racial uplift. Sylvia suffered tremendous and seemingly insurmountable heartaches including betrayal by those closest to her, a devastating car accident, the lynching of her adoptive parents, and a near-rape by her white father. Despite these personal challenges, Sylvia is determined to ensure that all Southern blacks can receive an education, and works diligently to ensure that the students of the Piney Woods School (near Vicksburg, Mississippi) get the education they deserve. Throughout the film, Sylvia is portrayed as a noble figure, even as she is tormented by personal heartbreak. Set in the Reconstruction era at the turn of the twentieth century, Within Our Gates is a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s filmography, and as such reiterates the significance of black humanity, the importance and perceived positive benefits of education, and the desirability of middle class idealism for African Americans.
There is a great deal to be said about Micheaux the filmmaker and the film itself, and my brief summary here does not compare to the inimitable existing work on Micheaux done by J. Ronald Green, J.D. Walker, and others. Yet what I would like to lift up (pun intended) is how racial progress becomes idealized. For Micheaux, the idea of moving forward as a race requires the intentional putting away of the practices, behaviors, and even traditions that have become interpreted as being a part of black culture, and all for the attainment of wealth, stability, and education. In Within Our Gates, this is particularly demonstrated by way of Sylvia’s relentless pursuit to do everything she can to educate black Southerners “against their Negro ignorance,” and especially so in Old Ned, the zealous, but misguided, “Negro” preacher.
Deploying varied shots from the perspectives of Old Ned and the congregation, Micheaux reveals differences between how Ned and the congregation interpret his role as the ministerial figure. In the end, Micheaux emphasizes moving beyond the emotionalism and fervor that “typifies” black religious expression. Micheaux’s focus on black religion—though brief—reflects what Judith Weisenfeld identifies as “the contribution that portrayals of black religion have made to the production of ideas about race in general and about African Americans in particular.” While the film affirms the centrality of black religiosity in American history, it encourages viewers to move on from some of the more readily identifiable features of black Protestantism, including call and response, emotive expression, and the sing-song sermonic form of black preaching. This portrayal leads the viewer to speculate whether the contradictions of black religion were embodied in Micheaux himself.
As I reflect on the representations of black religion in popular film today, I am dismayed by how little has changed. Whether by way of First Sunday (2008), The Princess and the Frog (2009), or just about any feature in Tyler Perry’s long list of film and television productions, black religious expression often—though not always—gets the short end of the stick. And that short end frequently calls for the abandonment of a past where black religious practice was—as it continues to be—highly politicized, and budding with transformative potential.
I am left wondering how we reconcile negative stereotypes of black religion with the general uplift message and Micheaux’s artistic contributions as writer, producer, and director. I recognize that just as it was in Micheaux’s time, the makings of film do not occur in a vacuum, for popular discourse about black progress, and even black religious progress echoes historical formulations of racial uplift. Whether from Bill Cosby’s controversial “Pound Cake Speech” in 2004, the publicized outcry by the Association of Black Women Historians on representations of dialect, civil rights activism, and notions of black domestic workers in the Oscar-winning film The Help (2011), or the recent controversy around the exclusion of women in Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, racial uplift continues to be a thread of popular discourse on African American politics, and popular culture and black religion.
As of late, I have been asking the same about the contradictions inherent in representations of black religion for Tyler Perry, who most recently made headlines for building a church in his backyard.
In thinking through Perry’s work in particular, and especially so for the ways it is so very reminiscent of Micheaux, I have been struck by just how detrimental notions of progress couched in the language of uplift can be to black women. Are there ways to continue to celebrate historical elements of black religiosity that isn’t just about mocking, parodying or “moving beyond” their meaning and significance? I am not sure, and I wrestle with finding constructive ways to incorporate historicized aspects of black religion in ways that not only makes sense for our current times, but that also honors those practices, even while simultaneously critiquing them.
 See Green’s Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) and With A Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004) and http://www.jdwalker.org.
 Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 3.