Here I present to you a guest post written by Imogen Taylor who will be contributing more interesting articles in the times to come. This article is about “a name that not many people know in the twenty first century, but a name that certainly made an impression during the earliest years of cinema for his bold statements and positive interpretations of African American people,” in Imogen’s own words. I have enjoyed reading it, and I hope you too will enjoy.
Oscar Micheaux – The First African American Filmmaker
By Imogen Taylor
When we think about the early years of motion pictures, our thoughts tend to drift toward the slapstick adventures of Chaplin, the melodramatic (and problematic, as we’ll see later) productions of DW Griffith or the great glamorous actresses of the day such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Tallulah Bankhead.
What’s often not realised is how much of a part the African American community played in the early development of the “flickers”, and the important role they had in trying to bridge the gap between outdated notions of colonialism and controversial subjects such as slavery and interracial romance. One man did more than anyone else to try and bring about a positive change in perceptions – he was called Oscar Micheaux, and this is his story.
Beginnings and development
Born in 1884, and one of thirteen, his ancestry was rooted in slavery with his Grandfather being linked to French colonists who settled in Virginia in the 1700s. When he was just sixteen years of age he was sent away to work in Chicago with his brother, and did many menial jobs for little money including working in the mills.
He quickly became disenchanted with the life he was living; sure there was something better out there for him with quicker and easier ways to make a living. After a brief unhappy marriage in which he lost all the money he had and was accused by his wife of not being around for her or their children he decided enough was enough and set about making his way as a writer.
In 1913, his first work, a novel called “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader” was published. At the time, he put it out under an anonymous name – but later revealed it had been him behind the book all along. It appears to be a semi-autobiographical work, which relates his own life and times and recounts the failure of his marriage. The over-riding theme of the novel was trying to put across the idea that African people should try and aim as high as possible, that they should always realise their potential and succeed in areas of life which were not traditionally seen as “theirs” to be involved in.
Moving On To Great Success
He established a production company called the “Oscar Micheaux Book and Film Company” (later becoming “The Micheaux Pictures Corporation”). At a time when the movies were dominated by wealthy, white American men and women who were indulging in glamorous, affluent lifestyles lounging on chaise longues or sectional sofas, dripping in expensive jewellery, furs and other trappings of Hollywood fame, Micheaux began to produce his own films and features on small budgets but with far-reaching stories.
In 1919, he turned his first novel into a film called “The Homesteader”, unfortunately the print of this has long since been lost, but the film is widely believed to be the first ever full length “race” feature, that is to say it was a film made by an African American director purely for black African and African American audiences. At the time of its release it was hugely controversial as it dealt with the incredibly emotive issues of lynching, passing and inter-racial romance. As with his novels, he was just as keen to promote the educational and economic improvement of ethic minorities.
A Prolific Film Career
During the period of 1919 and 1948 he made in excess of forty full feature films. Of his silent output, only three prints remain in existence. They are “Symbol Of The Underground”, “Within Our Gates” both made in 1920 and finally “Body And Soul” produced in 1925 and featuring the acting debut of one Paul Robeson. Here, amazingly in its entirety is the full version: Within Our Gates (full version – 1925). It’s a typically forthright and outspoken film dealing with the main character Sylvia Landry’s desire to help other young children who have suffered a similar harsh upbringing to the one she experienced.
In “The Exile”, which was Micheaux’s first talkie film, we see the themes and ideas which had been raised in “The Homesteader” coming to the fore again. Here is a short excerpt from the film (the music used to accompany the piece doesn’t necessarily fit the film, but you can still glean a very good idea of how the film plays out with themes of inter-racial love and murder to the fore): The Exile (1931).
Prejudice and Attack
Micheaux faced the same sorts of criticisms that directors such as DW Griffith encountered when he released his highly controversial film “The Birth Of A Nation”, which came in for such stern rebuttals and accusations of inherent racism that for many years it was banned and Griffith ostracised. It was a racist film based on a racist novel called “The Clansman”, though Griffith always maintained he was not racist himself.
In Micheaux’s film “Within our Gates” he provides a stern challenge to the ideas Griffith presented in “Birth Of A Nation”. In a shocking scene where a young couple are lynched there seems to be a direct and inherent side swipe at Griffith’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan’s vigilantism and his showing of the attempted rape of a white girl by a black man.
“Within Our Gates” was passed by the film censor board in Chicago in 1920 and premiered that same year, but people in the city who went to see it were left feeling uneasy due to the previous summer’s race riots and worried the same would happen again.
Micheaux continued to produce films that would create discussion and provoke controversy until just three years before his death from heart failure in 1951. In 1987 he was commemorated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 2010 the US postal Service issued a 44 cent stamp to celebrate his life. A name that not many people know in the twenty first century, but a name that certainly made an impression during the earliest years of cinema for his bold statements and positive interpretations of African American people.