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Alice Burton Russell Micheaux: “Breaking Barriers on Two Fronts”

Film history texts often neglect female screenwriters and completely omit the names of women of color such as Alice Burton Russell Micheaux, wife of filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch rightly so celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with attainable insight about filmmaker Alice Burton Russell Micheaux.
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As we’ve discovered and discussed in this column, film history texts often neglect female screenwriters. At least names like Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker do appear while texts completely omit the names of women of color such as Alice Burton Russell Micheaux. The other issue for many women is marital status. Even the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles, which has an exhibit on the work of her husband, Oscar Micheaux, does not treat Alice equally, though she produced and acted in many of his films. While their work spanned from Silent films to Talkies, Alice and Oscar worked outside the growing Hollywood industry, which also makes tracking her various contributions more difficult. Their materials were not kept in any industry archives. Those films that still exist -- among them Murder in Harlem (1935), The Girl from Chicago (1932), Birthright (1939) -- carry his name as creator, her name as a member of the acting company.

ALICEBRUSSELL

Yet as the daughter of a newspaper editor we can expect that she edited her husband’s scripts (and novels). In interviews, the lead actor in God’s Stepchildren (1938), Carman Newsome, recalled how Alice wrote the film based on her own unpublished short story “Naomi, Negress.” If she had one unpublished story it stands to reason she had others, and that she wrote in more than one medium. Another actor, Leroy Collins, remembered Alice acting as what he called a script supervisor but which sounded more like an editor and co-writer. Many of their films also involve social justice issues of the day including in Birthright when an African American character’s mother dies of food poisoning from an expired product sold by a white grocer. Such issues had often been reported in her father’s newspapers.

We know that as an actress she often played college-educated female characters representative of the black middle-class she came into when she was born. Most times she appears as a good mother figure and matriarch and mentor to other characters. These characters served as role models to audiences who otherwise only saw African Americans mocked in more mainstream films. It was clearly a mission of the Micheaux production company to provide better role models which makes it a mission of both Oscar and Alice.

As a married pair of filmmakers, patriarchy and the way society trained women not to outshine their husbands may have contributed to her own lack of acknowledging her work. In the 1930 New York census Alice listed herself as a ‘helper’ in the motion-picture industry while her husband confidently wrote ‘motion-picture producer’. Later, she referred to herself as a ‘presenter’ of films because she worked on the distribution of them to theatres across the country.

The Betrayal Lobby Card, Alice Burton Russell Micheaux on Far Left.

The Betrayal Lobby Card, Alice Burton Russell Micheaux on Far Left.

Have I had to extrapolate a few things in this month’s column? Yes. That is because no one preserved enough paperwork for us to know for sure. But if we don’t catalog what we do know, Alice and other wives and women of color like her will fall even further out of the historical record and that would be a crime.

If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.


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