There have been many pioneers that have contributed to the evolution of Blacks in cinema. Starting from Lena Horne, the first African-American to sign a long term contract in Hollywood, all the way to Spike Lee, who has directed critically acclaimed motion pictures since the 1980s. But the most significant trailblazer of the 20th Century to date is Oscar Micheaux, who produced and directed the very first African-American film,” The Homesteader” in 1919, and the first feature length sound film, “The Exile” in 1931.
Micheaux was born Jan. 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Ill., one of 13 children whose parents were former slaves. When he was 17 he left home for Chicago, where he found a job as a pull-man porter, one of the best jobs a Black man get under Jim Crow Laws. He assimilated the teachings of Booker T. Washington and Horace Greely and acquired land in South Dakota where he learned to be a farmer. He wrote his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” in 1913 and rewrote the book in 1917 renaming it “The Homesteader,” which he sold himself as a door-to-door salesman. George and Noble Johnson, “The Johnson Brothers,” who ran The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, wanted to buy the rights to his book and make it into a film, but Oscar refused after being denied as director to his own story. He took the opportunity to organize his own company called Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City and Chicago where he raised enough money to produce and direct his own films.
“The Homesteader,” which premiered in Chicago on February 20, 1919 received reviews from newspaper critics coining his film as a stepping stone African American integration into American culture. His next film, “Within Our Gates,” in 1920, was a response to D.W.Griffith’s, “Birth of a Nation,” a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and justified violence against Black people. Micheaux’s film rebutted Griffith’s by revealing the reality of ongoing racism in the United States and hatred of the dominant white society could be challenged. Micheaux finally injected an African-American perspective that was sorely needed, and he did it in the most powerful medium in his eyes to communicate his point of view – through cinema.
Working out of Chicago, Micheaux made over 30 films over the next three decades. These films included musicals, comedies, Westerns, romances, and even gangster films. He used actors from the N.Y. Lafayette Players, and always type-cast actors according to complexion, light-skinned African-Americans playing leads, and dark-skinned playing heavies.
This played part of the consciousness in the black community and mirrored the racism that he so despised. His story needed to be told no matter the pressure from the mainstream critics and no critic could deny the importance of Micheaux’s films, which were a departure from Hollywood’s racist portrayals of blacks as Uncle Toms and mammies. Micheaux’s films were vital to the American experience by providing a diverse perspective of black characters, as well as images and stories of African-American life. His pioneering spirit in undeniable.
Micheaux passed in 1951, but his contributions to the world of Black film will never be forgotten.