By Tiffany Unscripted
Years before Spike Lee and Melvin Peebles featured themes like racial inequality and terrifying facts about the whimsical lives of Black Americans, a young black porter broke the cinematic barrier. The name of this unorthodox influencer was Oscar Micheaux, who turned out to be a pioneer in gaining freedom of speech. Micheaux is known as the “father of Black cinema.”
At the very young age of 17, Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter and spent a substantial time among white families in South Dakota. His first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), was the products of his harsh experience during those years. But, The Homesteader (1917), his second book, was the real gamechanger for which Micheaux was offered a movie adoption by a production company. But the negotiations failed to reach any promising result. Micheaux was among one of those rare individuals who had this knack of transforming failures into opportunities. He sold his books door-to-door and sold his stock to white farmers at a very low cost of $75 per share, to convert his publishing firm, Western Book Supply Co, to Micheaux Film and Book Co.
In 1919, Micheaux made history by releasing The Homesteader as the first feature-length movie by any African-American. The first look poster of the movie said, “An All-Star Negro Cast!” It could be considered the first film that proudly displayed representation of Black Americans in the film industry.
This was certainly the first defining phase of his career when Black Americans had the courage to express their concerns. But, Micheaux didn’t stop here. The very next year he released Within Our Gates (1920) as a vehement response to Birth of a Nation (1915), a cult classic still remembered for its racial biases. Micheaux’s work was an open challenge that triggered a cold war between black and white filmmakers. He continued writing and producing his movies on his own in the Progressive Era.
Camaraderie of Top-Notch Actors in Industry
Many of Micheaux’s movies were done with Paul Robeson, who was not only an exceptional stage actor and immaculate bass-baritone concert artist, but Robeson was an activist supporting the concerns of Black Americans. Body and Soul (1925) starring Paul Robeson became a benchmark for performance.
Lorenzo Tucker was another notable character in Micheaux’s films who always played the romantic lead. Tucker was also called the "Black Valentino”. Tucker worked movies like When Men Betray (1928), Easy Street (1930), Wages of Sin (1929), Harlem Big Show, Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Harlem After Midnight (1934), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Temptation (1935), and Underworld (1937). Collectively he worked in no less than 18 movies of Oscar Micheaux. Later on, in WWII, he served as a tail gunner in the army.
Micheaux was really obsessed with the performance of Bee Freeman and he acknowledged her to be his favorite lady. Her best performances include Chicago After Murder in Harlem (1935), Midnight (1928), Temptation (1935) and Underworld (1937). A very little is known about Freeman but she is famous for poses holding cigarettes and dancing. Some other notable actors with whom Micheaux worked with includes Evelyn Preer, Edward R. Abrams, Lawrence Chenault, Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault, Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, and James D. Ruffin.
Technical Aspects of Micheaux’s Work
Micheaux really liked the tableaux shots which are quite evident in Within Our Gates. There is a neutral background and the subjects are always in center of the frame.
Such static camera shots were quite popular at the very inception of cinematic history as they were termed to represent “reality.” The same technical approach was adopted in the hospital and parlor sequence of the same movie.
Editing and Lighting
Micheaux’s movies showcased a lot of lynching, where white supremacy was reflected with terrible and inhumane aptitude. The editing and camera work were exceptional to support this narrative in every movie. In contrast with The Birth of a Nation, he used parallel editing in Within our Gates. In order to differentiate between white and black people, Micheaux intelligently used backgrounds of the scenes where light-skinned people were shown to be treated better than dark-skinned people. A subtle move was done by using a light-skinned Black American as the protagonist of the story.
Nature and Structure of Bold Narratives
The structure of Micheaux’s narrative was mostly simple and straight that could be explained well within one or two lines. The early 1900s was a time of social and political activism and reforms. Black Americans were either kept from being active or their film roles were discredited. In such a vulnerable span of time, Micheaux conceived conflicts that were concise and accurate. The American audience was not accustomed to viewing such narratives and storytelling. For example, in Within Our Gates, a biracial individual is shown raising funds for an Black American school. Also, there were clear perils of being raped and executed by whites. Although Micheaux experienced hurdles and financial strains, he managed to lead a career comprised of over 40 film, to raise awareness and the condition of Black Americans.
Forgotten for many years, a considerable mass of Micheaux’s work was destroyed or lost. The silent movies, like The Brute, The Homesteader, The Gunsaulus Mystery, Birthright, The Conjure Woman, The House Behind the Cedars, The Spider’s Web, The Wages of Sin, The Millionaire, are some of the gem mislaid in history and could not be recovered. Within Our Gates was found in Madrid’s Filmoteca Espanol in 1990, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) was discovered in a Belgian archive. Only Body and Soul (1925) and Within Our Gates (1920) can be found VHS and DVD home video.
Micheaux continued writing to support the concerns of his people until 1951, the year of his death. Hollywood acknowledges the important impact of his work on the current depiction of Black Americans in Hollywood movies. In 1986, Directors Guild of America retrospectively named him the recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award. Spike Lee received this award for Best Director in 1986 for She’s Gotta Have It. It is associated as the product of struggle made by Micheaux decades ago. Additionally, in 1987, Micheaux was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. In 2007, his biography entitled The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker was published.
The legacy of Micheaux lives on and it is best represented by the heart-touching words engraved on his gravestone which reads A Man Ahead of His Time.
Tiffany Unscripted is the Managing Editor of Your Film Review at Occhi Magazine. She manages a small team of writers that cover all genres of movies, including writing featured articles on trending topics. In addition to writing, they cover live events, such as film premieres and screenings all across the country.
She especially enjoys the opportunity to meet emerging talent who enjoy sharing their passion, journey, challenges, and success with our readers. You can learn more about Your Film Review at OcchiMagazine.com.