Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is the best known Black American film-maker of the early 1900s. He made what we would call low-budget independent films. He gave both Paul Robeson and Earl Jones (James Earl Jones’s father) their start in film.
He made at least 43 films, from 1919 to 1948. All but 16 were silent. All but ten are lost. Some are now on YouTube.
Race films: By the late 1920s there were about 700 Black cinemas in the US, creating a market for “race films”, films with a Black cast meant for Black audiences. Film companies, both Black and White-owned, sprang up to meet the demand. By the 1930s most race films were being made by Whites. Micheaux was one of the few Black film-makers who not only made the jump from silent to talking films, but who was not wiped out by the Great Depression.
Stereotypes: Micheaux wanted to fight Hollywood stereotypes that showed Blacks as shuffling servants. His main characters tend to be middle-class, well-educated and speak Standard English. Most are light, bright and damn near white. They believe in uplifting the race – and in assimilation, if not interracial marriage. Black working-class characters, when they do appear, tend to be darker-skinned and are sometimes superstitious.
Race: Micheaux had little interest in showing Black poverty, but he did not avoid issues of race. The oldest film that we have from him, or any Black director, is “Within Our Gates” (1920), his answer to “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).. It barely got past the censors in Chicago and was not shown in the South for fear that it would lead to race riots. It features a lynching.
White viewers: Although his main audience was Black, he was able to get his films shown at midnight at some White cinemas. Knowing that Whites were curious about Black nighclubs, he put in cabaret scenes for them.
Not Hollywood but Bronzeville: Micheaux was based in Bronzeville, a Black ghetto on the South Side of Chicago that gave us Louis Armstrong, Bessie Coleman, Sam Cooke, Jennifer Beals and the Chicago Defender.
He got into film-making by writing novels that were based on his experience as a farmer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the oldest Black-owned film company, asked if they could make one of his books into a movie. When they would not let him direct – he had absolutely no film-making experience! – he started his own company to make the film. He raised money from White and Black farmers by driving across Oklahoma and asking. He was a striking figure with loads of charm. The film, “The Homesteader” (1919), amazingly, was a success.
He was always short on money. That meant he had to shoot his films in a short time, often using the first take even if the actor messed up his line. With no money to build sets, he used friends’s homes and offices. He liked to shoot scenes near stairs because they had better lighting.
– Abagond, 2015.