Retro Review: ‘The Symbol of the Unconquered’

The month of February in the United States is recognized as Black History Month. This is to honor the rich history of struggles and triumphs African Americans have gone through, as well as to acknowledge the work left to do. In honor of Black History Month I have decided to focus my Retro Reviews for the month on important films of black cinema, such as this hallmark film from the great Oscar Micheaux. During the infancy of moviedom in the Silent Age the doors were wide open for different voices to step behind the camera. While over time the studio stomped this out, there are a large number of silent films made by people of color, women, and anyone else who wanted to express themselves through this new artform. It was during this time Micheaux thrived as an artist rising from the son of a slave to the status of “Czar of Black Hollywood”. While many of his works have been lost to time, his 1920 masterpiece The Symbol of the Unconquered is thankfully no longer one of them. During the 1990’s a print was discovered in Belgium and thanks to the work of the Oscar Micheaux Society, the Museum of Modern Art and the cable network Turner Classic Movies, The Symbol of the Unconquered has been restored for future generations.

After the passing of her grandfather, Eve Mason must leave her Alabama home to claim property he left for her in the Northwest. Along the way, she forms a bond with her new neighbor Hugh Van Allen. This new friend is oblivious to the fact that is lies on a rich oil field, but the self-loathing and conniving Jefferson Driscoll soon discovers this fact. He unites the Knights of the Black Cross, the Klan in all but name, to begin a campaign of terror against Eve and Van Allen in order to steal the land. The couple stands firm in the face of this threat and the community unites to stop the white supremacists.

This film was Oscar Micheaux’s rebuttal against the landmark DW Griffith movie Birth of a Nation. In that movie, the first big budget and feature length production ever, the terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan are presented as the heroes. They valiantly ride in to “save” the good white Southerners from actors in blackface portraying horrid stereotypes. But Micheaux knew better and wanted to call the KKK out for the evil thugs they were. Film historians have even found ad materials from the movie that invited audiences to witness “the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan”. Considering the hate group had recently been reignited and was on the growth to prominence in America this was a bold proclamation for the film. Unfortunately there is far more to the decimation of the Klan in The Symbol of the Unconquered that has not yet been uncovered, so hopefully one day some archivist somewhere will rediscover these missing scenes.

The actual movie itself tends to be all over the place. The art of a full-length feature film was still brand new in 1920, and filmmakers were only starting to grasp. This should explain why there is so much happening in The Symbol of the Unconquered that it can get confused and jumbled in terms of the plot. Despite this, Micheaux’s talent as a director still shines through. He transforms the New Jersey filming site into a rugged wilderness perfectly and coaxes wonderful performances from his cast. He uses this film to make commentary on African American life during this era. Eve, being a light-skinned woman can pass for white who becomes bonded with Van Allen who can not deny his skin color which proves perilous. It is perhaps the movie’s villain, Jefferson Driscoll who proves the most fascinating. He is a man of mixed race who has felt held back due to his black heritage and takes it out on his fellow African Americans, but moreso hates himself for who he is. While he is despicable, Driscoll is also a compelling antagonist.

This was the fourth film from Oscar Micheaux and one of the few that still survive. Seeing as how Symbol of the Unconquered was one of his definitive pictures we should count ourselves lucky that this was rediscovered. While this silent film may have its flaws it is an engrossing piece of cinema well worth a watch as an important milestone in cinematic history.