Writer,producer,director Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a feature length film
|Posted by The Reunion Black Family on April 22, 2012 at 12:15 PM|
Writer, producer, director Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a feature length film, and one of the most prolific independent film producers of all time. He is considered a major figure in early American films and a symbol of the artist triumphing over long odds to bring his vision to the public.
Born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, Oscar Micheaux was one of 13 children of parents who had been born into slavery. When he was 17, he left town and moved to Chicago, where he got a job as a Pullman porter, one of the best jobs available to a young black man in the days of the Jim Crow laws.
But Oscar was a dreamer. And a doer. Inspired by the self-help teachings of Booker T. Washington and the "Go west, young man" philosophy of Horace Greenley, Oscar moved to Gregory County, South Dakota in 1905 and homesteaded a 500 acre farm, despite the fact that he had no farming experience. You know, my Mama was from South Dakota, and I'm guessing that in 1905, Oscar was maybe the only black person in the entire state. I can't imagine what all those Norwegian bachelor farmers made of him, though they were bound to have been impressed by his gumption.
It was during this time that Oscar started writing novels. Faced with the racist restrictions on African-American authors, Oscar decided to just publish his books himself, and sell them door to door. His most famous novel "The Homesteader" (1917) was very popular, and was based on his own experiences in South Dakota.
Soon, his books attracted the attention of Hollywood. African-American movie pioneers George and Noble Johnson tried to option the movie rights to "The Homesteader", but Oscar wouldn't sell them the rights unless they agreed to a large budget, and to allow him to direct the film! When they refused to meet his demands, Oscar decided to start his own film production company and make the movie himself. He founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company, and set to work selling enough stock in his company to fund the making of his film.
"The Homesteader" was released in 1919, and came in at eight reels, making it the first feature-length film made by an African-American. Ads for the movie claimed it was "destined to mark a new epoch in the achievements of the Darker Races . . . every Race man and woman should cast aside their skepticism regarding the Negro's ability as a motion picture star, and go and see, not only for the absorbing interest obtaining therein, but as an appreciation of those finer arts which no race can ignore and hope to obtain a higher plan of thought and action."
Thus began Oscar Micheaux's career as a "Race Film" maker, the phrase coined for films made for black audiences from the early days of film through the civil rights movement of the 1950s. He made 30 films over the next three decades, including musicals, comedies, westerns, romances and gangster films. The honest portrayal of blacks in Oscar's films was a radical departure from Hollywood's stereotypical, racist portrayals of blacks as dolts, Uncle Toms, Mammies or jungle natives. He cast actors from the renowned Lafayette Theatre of Harlem, and in his 1925 film "Body and Soul", he introduced the movie-going public to the great Paul Robeson.
And in true Hollywood fashion, Oscar even married his leading lady, actress Alice B. Russell. They were married from 1926 through his death from heart disease in 1951, and during that time he cast her in almost ALL of his films. Got to love a good nepotist.
Nowadays, Oscar Micheaux's films are seldom seen on television, but often turn up in artsy film festivals
As well as "Within Our Gates", his 1919 silent which was Micheaux's brutal and honest answer to D.W. Griffith's racist "Birth of a Nation".