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
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