Year of Release: 1920
Runtime: 54 mins. (TCM print)
Black & White
Studio: Micheaux Film Corporation
Producer: Oscar Micheaux
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Iris Hall (Eve Mason)
Walker Thompson (Hugh Van Allen)
Lawrence Chenault (Jefferson Driscoll)
Mattie Wilkes (Mother Driscoll)
Louis Déan (August Barr)
Leigh Whipper (Tugi an Indian Fakir)
E.G. Tatum (Abraham)
George Catlin (Dick Mason)
Eve Mason, a light-skinned Black woman, leaves Selma, Alabama for the northwest town of Oristown to claim the land and small house she inherited upon the death of her grandfather. A fatigued Eve arrives at the Driscoll Hotel, which is owned by Jefferson Driscoll, another very light-skinned Black who wants to pass for White. Driscoll hates the Negro race because his darker skinned mother once interfered with his wooing a White woman. In spite of her light skin, Driscoll realizes Eve is Black as “her eyes betray her origins” and refuses to give her a room, instead he leads her to the barn where he has allowed Abraham, another potential guest who Driscoll refused to rent a room to because of the color of his skin. During the night Eve is frightened by Abraham and flees the barn into the pouring rain. The next day she meets kindly Hugh Van Allen, a young, Black prospector who has recently arrived in Oristown.
It turns out Van Allen is her neighbor and he offers Eve a lift to her place outside of town. A White couple, Mary and August Barr, are also neighbors of Van Allen and Eve. August Barr is a former clergyman turned swindler and “a man of dubious financial schemes.” Barr is in cahoots with his brother-in-law and an Indian fakir named Tugi to get back documents stolen by “half-breed Indian,” Philip Clark and which were then taken by an old Black prospector, believed to be Dick Mason, Eve’s grandfather. The three determine that the documents are in Mason’s old cabin, where Eve is now living.
That night Eve sees a terrible face looking in on her and cries out in fear. Van Allen hears her and rushes to the rescue, but the intruder has gone. Meanwhile Driscoll has sold his hotel and gets involved with horse thieves, Philip Clark and old Bill Stanton. When he tries to pass off two stolen nags as thoroughbreds to Van Allen, the two get into a fight at the local bar and Van Allen beats up Driscoll to the amusement of the bar patrons. Humiliated, Driscoll vows revenge.
Eve with Van Allen’s assistance, works hard to make the most of her modest homestead. Mary Barr, August’s unhappy wife, and Eve soon become friends. In town, Driscoll intercepts a letter meant for Van Allen which states that his land sits on an oil field. Driscoll, in league with Barr and Tugi, men plot to get Van Allen’s valuable land. They decide to get old Bill Stanton involved, as he knows how to make people do things they don’t want to do.
They post notes signed by The Knights of the Black Cross on Van Allen’s tent, threatening his life if he won’t sell his land. Van Allen ignores the notes, leaves for town to buy furniture and won’t be back for 48 hours. In his absence, the last note is posted, giving him 48 hours to sell.
The group, led by Bill Stanton, plan a midnight attack and Stanton tells the others, “in one hour we will have driven him mad and burned him in his lair.” Barr’s wife Mary, upset by the planned massacre, goes to warn Eve, who rides to town for help, just as Van Allen returns, unaware of the impending attack.
At this point footage is missing from the print. Title cards state “the biggest moments of the photoplay are when the night riders are annihilated, a colored man with bricks being a big factor.”
Two years pass and Van Allen, having escaped death by a miracle, has become an oil king as his land was found to contain abundant oil fields. One day Eve appears at his office to deliver a letter from the Committee for the Defense of the Colored Race, informing Van Allen that he “may give Eve his contribution without fear as she has rendered a great service to the cause of the Black race; despite her white skin, she is born of black parents”. Bewildered, Van Allen had always believed that Eve was White and had never declared his love for fear of being scornfully rejected. He becomes emotional and Eve, misinterpreting his mood, believes she has now fallen in his esteem.
Eventually they resolve the misunderstanding and live happily ever after.
Opening title card states: The Symbol of the Unconquered has been restored by the Museum of Modern Art – Department of Film and Video and Turner Classic Movies in cooperation with The Oscar Micheaux Society.
Micheaux’s fourth feature length film and one of his earliest surviving works.
Shot in Fort Lee, NJ under the working title The Wilderness Trail.
Sources: Turner Class Movies; IMDB; YouTube.