Feel the Illinoise: Stace England and the Salt Kings educates SLIFF attendees about forgotten filmmaker Oscar Micheaux

Nov 12, 2009 at 4:00 am
With all due respect to Sufjan Stevens, Stace England's 2005 album, Greetings from Cairo, Illinois, is the definitive record/history lesson about the Land of Lincoln. Hailing from Cobden in Southern Illinois, the Americana singer-songwriter detailed the forgotten history of the region known as "Little Egypt" and refracted our country's history through this little pocket of land. England continues to blend twentieth-century history with roots rock on his forthcoming album, The Amazing Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux was an African American filmmaker whose work was, in part, a response to D.W. Griffith's infamous 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. Micheaux's work was mostly forgotten until recent discoveries of long-lost prints made it possible for film scholars to reassess his contributions to American film.

England and his band the Salt Kings will be in town for the St. Louis International Film Festival for two engagements: He will perform his Micheaux record in its entirety, complete with accompanying film clips, at the Halo Bar on Saturday night. Additionally, he has written a film score to the 1920 film Within Our Gates, which is considered Micheaux's finest work, and will perform it alongside the film at the Saint Louis Art Museum on Friday night. Reached just across the Mississippi River by phone, England explained the genesis of the project and how writing songs and retelling history go hand in hand.

B-Sides: How did you become familiar with Oscar Micheaux?

Stace England: I discovered him quite by accident. I was perusing a library here in Southern Illinois and found Pat McGilligan's book [Oscar Micheaux, the Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker] and began to read it. He's from Metropolis, which is in our region here. As I read the arc of this guy's life, I was blown away and was really surprised that I had not heard of him before. That's how I discovered him, and I began to seek the films out. The songs came very rapidly from that point because I was so inspired and kind of stunned by his story.

It seems the Cairo record was more of an alternate history of a small town. Was the Micheaux record in the same vein?

What I find really intriguing is these "through the looking glass" types of stories that are from this region. Micheaux definitely fit that category because it's very unlikely this gentleman could have accomplished what he did during that time period.

I wonder how much of it is not an alternate history, but rather a history that has been subsumed or forgotten.

I think that's true. One of the reasons that Micheaux is not more well known is that a lot of his most important films were lost for decades. The real important films — the pushbacks to Birth of a Nation, including Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered, no one really knew about those. We knew about the press accounts, but decades drifted by, and suddenly they were discovered.

When those were brought back to the U.S., people were stunned. Film scholars had to rewrite how they teach film because no one knew that there was this wily, incredible African American guy pushing back [who was] able to get these films onto screens. That was what was so remarkable about his life — he seemed to have an ability to will himself into these incredible situations, from homesteading to becoming an author to knowing nothing about film and just going for it in a very visceral fashion. It's a very inspiring thing for me as a musician, to be able to do that and get past his obstacles.