Throughout the history of cinema, there have been several Black filmmakers who have considerably helped to elevate the voices of their own community, levelling the overwhelmingly white playing field of Hollywood. From the likes of Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen to Julie Dash, Ava DuVernay and Maya Angelou, each one of these creatives owe their existence in cinema to the pioneering efforts of Oscar Micheaux, the very first Black filmmaker.
Initially reserved only for those who could afford the source materials to make their own films, cinema remained an exclusive art form well into the 20th century, making it a medium dominated by white (often racist) men. Micheaux was the first filmmaker to provide such diversity in Hollywood, releasing his debut film The Homesteader in 1919 as a direct response to D. W. Griffith’s infamous white supremacist flick Birth of a Nation.
Taking cinema by the scruff of its neck and providing a new Black perspective on contemporary issues, Micheaux challenged the damaging cultural norms of early 20th century America, releasing his masterpiece Body and Soul six years after his debut, in 1925. Based on his own novel, the film followed a malevolent preacher who takes advantage of a woman from his congregation only for the woman to fall in love with the man’s estranged identical twin.
Whilst on the surface Micheaux’s mid-twenties classic sounds a little simple, beneath the plot the director conjures an intricate subtext that revolves around the fears and anxieties of Black women in contemporary America. Feeling forced into a relationship with the phoney preacher (Paul Robeson), the fate of the young Black woman named Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell) seems all but decided, though Micheaux protects the character and empowers her with choice instead of submission.
Giving an unprecedented platform for Black female leads, the director spoke up for the empowerment of women into the 20th century, creating a film in which the lead character’s agency became a key feature of its sheer poignancy. As such Micheaux targeted Black cinema-goers with a cast and narrative that spoke directly to the community, bypassing Hollywood to create a key text of early Black cinema that would educate and awaken change.
Created as a ‘race movie’ outside of the mainstream studio system of Hollywood, Micheaux and the film’s producers were forced to rely on the discretion of cinema owners in order for their films to be shown. As a result, the film had to appear ‘risk-free’ and refrain from inciting any political message, eventually getting the film into cinemas after rigorous re-edits after the Motion Picture Commission of New York denied the film due to its tendency “to incite crime”, deeming it “immoral” and “sacrilegious”.
Forcing its way to the screens of Black communities, Body and Soul did indeed drive change with its ingeniously nuanced story that disguised its intentions behind an ‘oblivious’ story. Starring the rising star of Harlem’s theatre scene, Paul Robeson, the actor would go on to build a successful career as a singer and political activist fighting for civil rights as Oscar Micheaux’s film became the seed from which a flourishing Black film industry would grow.