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Film

Oscar Micheaux: The story of the first black filmmaker

@Russellisation

“There is no barrier to success which diligence and perseverance cannot hurdle.” – Oscar Micheaux

In the infancy of the 20th century, cinema remained an exclusive form of art, reserved only for those who could source and afford the rudimentary yet expensive equipment necessary to create a feature film. Taken up as a source of experimentation by confident emerging artists as well as ambitious feature filmmakers, early cinema was dominated by the loudest voices, with 1915’s Birth of a Nation reflecting the racism that remained stagnant in America ever since The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 

Just four years after the release of Birth of a Nation, a film so popular in America that it was shown at the White House in 1915, Oscar Micheaux entered the industry, releasing his debut film The Homesteader as the first major black feature filmmaker. Defying the makeup of the contemporary industry that consisted only of white male filmmakers, Micheaux pioneered black cinema with dogged perseverance, telling stories that conveyed the hardship of the black experience whilst challenging the damaging cultural norms that had become ingrained in American society. 

Demonstrating such tenacity from a young age, Oscar Micheaux moved to Chicago at the age of 17 at the wish of his father, where he pursued a career in business, setting up his own shoeshine stand before becoming a Pullman porter on the railroads. Through the nature of this state-hopping job, Micheaux was lucky enough to travel across the United States from a young age, save up a considerable amount of money and meet several wealthy individuals who would become imperative in bolstering his future career. 

Armed with a wealth of knowledge and an impressive amount of social skills, Micheaux moved to Gregory County, South Dakota, where he worked as a homesteader, living out the reality that would later inspire several of his films and stories. Soon deciding to focus his career on an entirely new industry, Oscar Micheaux set out on becoming an author, subsequently writing several novels by the middle of the 20th century. 

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Printing 1000 copies of his first book The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer in 1913, Micheaux based his story on his time as a homesteader along with the failures of his first marriage with Orlean McCracken. Fuelled by a passionate theme that asked the black population of the USA to realise their potential and strive to succeed in areas they previously had not, Micheaux became a pioneering voice for the black community. Five years later, following the release of his novel The Homesteader, Micheaux decided to found the Micheaux Film & Book Company of Sioux City in Chicago and turn his novel into a feature film after turning down initial interest from a producer in Los Angeles. 

Contacting the wealthy clients he had come across during his time as a porter for financial interest, Micheaux hired actors and secured a filming location for his very first, historic feature film. Revolving around a man named Jean Baptiste who falls in love with several white women only to resist his urges and marry a black woman instead, the film becomes a complicated web of moral turbulence as Oscar Micheaux juggles issues of race relationships and tries to find a solution to the quandary.

During a time of significant social and political change in America, the films of Micheaux dealt with the realities and challenges of living as a black man in America, often offering intellectual responses to cultural statements of intent such as D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. Considered Micheaux’s answer to Griffiths’ film, Within Our Gates was released in 1920 and contrasts the experiences of black people who had stayed in the rural country with those who had been urbanised by the cities. Exploring the suffering of black men, women and children in contemporary America, the film was considered to be pivotal in bringing the injustices of black people to the consciousnesses of the white American people.

Opposing, breaking down and discussing the racial injustices that black Americans faced on a regular basis including discrimination, mob violence, lynching and more, Micheaux’s mission was to provide a counterpoint of representation to the racist stereotypes the likes of D. W. Griffith offered in popular cinema. In pursuit of this, he created complex, wise and emotionally intelligent characters that presented black people in a light that had never been publicly portrayed. As Micheaux, himself stated, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights”.

As a result of Oscar Micheaux’s own remarkable resilience, black American cinema is now thriving, and continues, in his own vein, to challenge prejudice and provide an all-encompassing view of the black experience. 

Watch Oscar Micheaux’s iconic film Within Our Gates for free in its entirety, below.