Friday, February 5, 2016

Black History Month: Oscar Micheaux


If I told you that a movie came out with a predominantly African-American cast, you wouldn’t bat an eye. If I told you it involves a black man being falsely accused of killing a white man, you probably still wouldn’t think too much of it. It becomes interesting, perhaps very much so, when I tell you that’s really just a backdrop for the bulk of the story which is about a woman trying desperately to save the school she’s founded by dealing with an assortment of bigoted benefactors and other shady characters. One of the film’s biggest themes is disproving stereotypes. And of course, there’s a love story. You’d hardly be surprised if I told that this movie were written and directed by an African-American man. After all, this could easily be a project helmed by Steve McQueen, Ryan Coogler, Lee Daniels, or Spike Lee. But, what if I told you it was made in 1919? Unless you already knew this, you’d rightfully be blown away.

The racial climate in this country certainly was not conducive to a black man helming a film and getting it released. I mean, we’re talking nearly one hundred years ago – ten years before the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow still ruled the American south. While attitudes were more liberal in the north, there was still an implicit racism at play. The director of this particular film managed to overcome this and create a long and successful career for himself. His name was Oscar Micheaux.If I told you that a movie came out with a predominantly African-American cast, you wouldn’t bat an eye. If I told you it involves a black man being falsely accused of killing a white man, you probably still wouldn’t think too much of it. It becomes interesting, perhaps very much so, when I tell you that’s really just a backdrop for the bulk of the story which is about a woman trying desperately to save the school she’s founded by dealing with an assortment of bigoted benefactors and other shady characters. One of the film’s biggest themes is disproving stereotypes. And of course, there’s a love story. You’d hardly be surprised if I told that this movie were written and directed by an African-American man. After all, this could easily be a project helmed by Steve McQueen, Ryan Coogler, Lee Daniels, or Spike Lee. But, what if I told you it was made in 1919? Unless you already knew this, you’d rightfully be blown away.


The racial climate in this country certainly was not conducive to a black man helming a film and getting it released. I mean, we’re talking nearly one hundred years ago – ten years before the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow still ruled the American south. While attitudes were more liberal in the north, there was still an implicit racism at play. The director of this particular film managed to overcome this and create a long and successful career for himself. His name was Oscar Micheaux.

Micheaux was born in 1884, just twenty years after the end of the Civil War. In his twenties, he worked lots of odd-jobs and eventually became a homesteader with mostly white neighbors. These experiences inspired the novels he wrote, and eventually, the movies he created. He would go on to make over forty films and is considered to be the first major African-American film director. His first feature was a film called The Homesteader and was highly autobiographical. It proved a great catalyst for his career. Though he was successful both critically and commercially, his films were not awards winners. However, he has posthumously been honored many times including being given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987.

Oh, by the way, the film I was talking about earlier was one some saw as a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. He denied this, instead saying it was about the widespread instability following World War I. It’s called Within Our Gates. You can watch it in full, below.

Yes, it’s a silent movie. I said it was made in 1919, duh.





10 comments:

  1. I think there's a lot to appreciate with Within Our Gates. Yes, it's amateurish and doesn't have much in the way of the pretty things that make movies great. A lot of scenes are really just people talking and a ton of intertitles that tell the story. Then again, Micheaux was a black man making a movie in the silent era, and was making do with what he could get. That it exists at all is a tribute to the man's desire to make something.

    It's also a lot smarter than might be realized at first. It would be easy for the film to be just "Whitey is keeping us down," but it's a lot more nuanced than that. A number of the problems experienced by the characters here are the fault of other black characters who are selfish, uneducated, or venal. The preacher who tries to convince his flock to remain poor and uneducated (and thus reliant on the church) is a perfect example of this.

    I'd love to have seen what Oscar Micheaux could've done with a real budget, because with nothing he got some really good ideas on the screen.

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    1. I've nothing to add. This is a great comment. Thanks a bunch.

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  2. I agree with Steve. I know that the reason he and I have seen it, and in my case at least have even heard of it, is because it's included in the 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I confess I've seen nothing else from Micheaux.

    I hesitated to ask this question, since I know I'm touching the third rail, but I am genuinely curious and if I don't ask I can never know what anyone else thinks, so here goes. I noticed in the film the three "bad" characters - the preacher, the criminal, and the rat - were the darkest skinned performers, while the "good" people founding the school and not trying to cause trouble were the lighter skinned performers. Maybe it's Spike Lee's take on it from School Daze with lighter and darker skinned folks separating themselves that's affecting me, but I was wondering what, if anything, a modern audience should take from that. Am I reading too much into it? Is it just coincidence, or was Micheaux trying to say something himself? My apologies if this comes across as insensitive to the topic of your post.

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    1. No need to apologize. It's a valid question that invites discussion, but does not have an easy answer. And I'll also confess having never seen anything else from Micheaux.

      That the "bad" characters were the darkest skinned performers plays directly into what Spike Lee was talking about in School Daze. I don't know if Micheaux made a conscience decision to do this, but I wouldn't be surprised whether it was or it wasn't. When the movie was made, we were barely fifty years past the Civil War. The idea that the darker a person's complexion the closer they were to savagery was not only a widely held belief, but something openly espoused. It permeated the media and pop-culture alike. It's clear to me that Micheaux's casting choices were influenced by this. I'm just not sure if he was aware he was doing this.

      The question of what modern audiences should take from that is also intriguing. Sadly, the stereotypes still persist. See the recent documentary Dark Girls for a lot more on that. What's more is that it is still something that happens in movies with predominantly black casts and made by black directors. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the career of Tyler Perry, who has written and directed a number of plays and films. His work is extremely popular, particularly within the African-American community. Often, the villain of a Perry production is dark skinned male. In that sense, sadly, Micheaux's work is still not all that dated.

      All of this was my long-winded way of saying I really don't know if this was coincidence or if Micheaux was trying to say something. I could see it both ways.

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    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I know of Tyler Perry and the old lady character he plays, but I have not seen any of his movies.

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  3. Darn it! I really need to get on that Acting Black Blogathon. School's been keeping me busy, and I've got a frustrating essay that's gotten in the way. Trust me, if you've ever had to write a paper on Christian Metz (a popular film scholar who specializes in writing overly convoluted essays, making flawed claims, and using lots of jargon and outdated Freudian concepts to make himself sound smarter than he actually is) you'll know what I mean.

    Anyway, I personally am not familiar with Oscar Michaeux, and reading this has actually proven to be quite a surprise. I knew there was at least one female director working at the time, Alice Guy-Blaché, but I didn't know about Michaeux's work. I know there were a lot of racial issues at the time and Birth of a Nation is often said to have set back racial progress a few decades upon release, but I didn't realize there actually were films dealing with the opposite perspective. I think the most I'd been told in any of my classes was that there was a strong desire among African Americans to make films countering Birth of a Nation, but that they couldn't because of financial limits.

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    1. I really you can contribute to the blogathon, but understand if you can't. I'm not familiar with Christian Metz, but that sounds dreadful.

      I've heard the name Alice Guy-Blache, but don't know her work. I want to check her out. Birth of a Nation...ugh. It was definitely not helpful for racial progress. There were a few Af-Am directors in those early days. Micheaux was by far the most successful and even he was working with very limited budgets.

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  4. Thank you Dell for bringing this man to my attention. I had never heard of him but wow... that he was able to work in this industry is awesome. I'll have to sit down and watch that movie soon

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    1. Glad to do that. Getting just one film made during that era was a feat. Carving out a career is beyond amazing.

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