Fade to Black

Oscar Micheaux, America's first great African American filmmaker, gets a second take.

| November/December 2000

American independent filmmaking did not begin with Ida Lupino and others in the 1950s. One of cinema's earliest (and most fascinating) mavericks was Oscar Micheaux, a South Dakota farmer turned filmmaker who became the first African American auteur.

As Jill Jordan Sieder notes in Gadfly (March/April 2000), a Micheaux resurgence has been under way in recent years, marked by the release of several books and films about the man and his racially charged works. A book, lecture, and film program, Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, is scheduled to begin touring museums and schools next year. There's even talk of a made-for-TV movie based on Micheaux's intriguing life.

Born the son of a former slave in Illinois in 1884, Micheaux held a string of blue-collar jobs in Chicago before buying himself a piece of farm land in South Dakota. To augment his meager earnings, he began selling his own self-published novels door-to-door. Increasingly drawn to the social and political influence he could exert through the then-new medium of film, he reinvented himself yet again. With the success of his first movie, The Homesteader (now lost), he started his own film company and moved to Harlem. Between 1918 and 1948, Micheaux produced, directed, and edited 40 feature films--an impressive accomplishment for a director whose work was shown only in segregated theaters of the South and urban ghettos. He died in 1951.

'A natural at creating and marketing heroic black characters in conflict, Micheaux didn't flinch at difficult subjects,' writes Sieder. This was especially true in two early silent films, Within Our Gates (1919) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), which deal vividly with miscegenation, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan. Lost for 60 years, these silent movies astounded film scholars when they were rediscovered in Europe in the late 1980s. They are now regarded as Micheaux's masterpieces.

A superb introduction to this overlooked era in film history is the 1994 documentary Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies. Like other 'race movies'--early films made with African American casts for African American audiences--Micheaux's work presented a picture of black life vastly different from what viewers got from white directors like D.W. Griffith. Griffith's Civil War saga, The Birth of a Nation, was controversial from the moment of its release in 1915, harshly criticized by blacks and whites for its racist stereotypes. Certain scholars believe that Micheaux's two classic works were a direct attempt to challenge Griffith's take on black America as inaccurate and cruel.

Aware of the cinematic attraction that lies beneath the surface of taboo racial issues, Micheaux wasn't afraid to highlight the tensions he saw both between and within the races. And in an era when Hollywood generally portrayed African Americans as crude and uneducated, Micheaux's work was one of the few places where the blacks of his time could see themselves represented as confident, intelligent, and socially mobile--a pioneering vision that mainstream filmmaking would not acknowledge for decades.

Micheaux's two silent classics along with some of his later sound films, are available from Facets Multimedia (800/331-6197).

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