May 12, 2016

Watch the (Indie) Works of Oscar Micheaux, Pioneering African-American Filmmaker

Oscar Micheaux No Film School Silent Film Director Internet Archive
For a man the Producer's Guild called the "most prolific independent filmmaker in American cinema," African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a relatively obscure figure in early cinema. 

From 1919 to after WWII, Micheaux, who grew up in Illinois as one of eleven children born to former slaves, wrote, produced and directed 44 features. What's more, his films tackled controversial issues, including the racism of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nationand he was the first African-American filmmaker to have his work shown in "white" theaters. 

Micheaux's work is examined in this (very) short video by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon:

Check out two of Micheaux's films below:

Within Our Gates

Starting as a writer (besides films, he also wrote seven novels), in 1919, the former homesteader raised money and started his own production company. According to the NAACP, he was the "first African-American to make a film."Within Our Gates, his second feature, is based on his own novel, and seen by some as a rebuke to Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which despite its place in the history of cinema (even Roger Ebert was forced to concede its importance), is repugnant in its out and out bigotry. 

Murder in Harlem

Micheaux also has the distinction of being the first African-American filmmaker to direct a "talkie," and his films, along with many others in the so-called "race film" genre, were the first to portray characters who weren't stereotypes, but real people with everyday concerns. Add to that the fact that his films dealt with themes of racism, lynching, and interracial relationships. His 1935 film Murder in Harlem was loosely based on the infamous Leo Frank case, in which an innocent Jewish man was lynched for the murder of a young girl. 

Micheaux's obscurity can perhaps be explained by the complicated relationship he had within the African-American community. According to Atlas Obscura, the famous "Harlem Renaissance generation didn’t pay him much due at the time either. They looked down on Micheaux. They were middle class and educated. He wasn’t." Time, though, has shown Micheaux to be a pioneer in racial progress, as well as an indie filmmaker of astonishing prolificness.

The Homesteader Oscar Micheaux silent film African-American cinema No Film School
Charles Lucas and Iris Hall in a scene from 'The Homesteader'Credit: Charles Lucas and Iris Hall in a scene from The Homesteader

Most of his films are available for streaming and download through non-commercial license at the Internet Archive, as well as through Open Culture      

Your Comment

12 Comments

Great Article

May 12, 2016 at 9:28PM

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CABLE (X-FORCE)
DP/EDITOR/DIR
292

This is wonderful. Thank you post posting, Justin.

May 12, 2016 at 11:52PM

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Glad you enjoyed.

May 13, 2016 at 12:02PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

This pretty much blew my mind balls today. Exciting and important history. Thank you for sharing this. Definitely some Film History geeking out happening. :)

May 13, 2016 at 10:09AM

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Bryan Tosh
Director of Photography
471

Great article. Glad to see that his work is still appreciated.
The first photo is of Paul Robeson, an actor who starred in Micheaux's film, "Body and Soul".

May 13, 2016 at 10:38AM

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Hamilton Riley
Filmmaker/Editor
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Yup, and I believe that was Robeson's first role in film, too, which is also pretty great.

May 13, 2016 at 12:04PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Indeed it is! Good images of Micheaux are hard to find online, or were when this went up.

October 28, 2017 at 9:25AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

This is amazing, thanks for the article. Can't even begin to imagine what he had to go through to get his work out there (culturally, financially, you name it). Truly inspiring!

And to think some people criticize his films for "lack of production value" according to the video. Yes he had ~$10,000 to work with, which was more back then. But if you adjust for inflation, comes out to about $234,000. Miniscule budget even with all of the widespread technology we're spoiled with today.

May 13, 2016 at 11:49AM

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Shouldn't you find a picture of Micheaux to put in the header? They exist... Please be more thorough...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s7FdYGwFeQ

May 13, 2016 at 10:06PM

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No it wasn't mistaken identity, as the video link implies. Robeson got his first role, in believe, in one of Micheaux's films, and there wasn't an extant image of sufficient quality. Image wasn't my call, anyway, I'm just the writer, but thanks for being an engaged reader (and as you can see, I'm a super engaged commenter, responding only like a year later!) Thanks, man!

October 28, 2017 at 9:24AM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Awesome!!! More African-American filmmakers should see this type of content. In my opinion we need more African-Americans telling our stories. Thanks for this!!

May 18, 2016 at 1:26PM

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Von Ware
Director of photography
234

Great post, thanks for making me aware of this. Will definitely check out his films.

May 20, 2016 at 2:42PM

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Kayode
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