Will Sloan

The Homesteader

Oscar Micheaux was the first African American man to make feature-length films. His work has been alternately dismissed and lionized.

Discussed: The Populist Appeal of Cinema, Proto-Race Movies, Pullman Porters, The Master of Ballyhoo, Thick Stews of Racial Anxiety, Regressive Preachers, Church-Basement Staples, Studio-Era Bizarro Worlds, The Black Valentino or the Sepia Mae West, Well-to-Do Entrepreneurs, A Film Print–Burning Widow

Between 1919 and 1948, only one of Oscar Micheaux’s films was ever reviewed in the New York Times. It was his last, The Betrayal (1948), and the anonymous critic dismissed it in two paragraphs as “consistently amateurish.” Three years later, the most prolific African American filmmaker of the twentieth century died, at age sixty-seven, penniless and forgotten. Of his approximately forty films (the exact number is uncertain), only fifteen still survive—all in battered, incomplete prints.

But as his work has been slowly rediscovered and restored—including major achievements like Within Our Gates (1920), The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), Body and Soul (1925), and God’s Step Children (1938)—it is becoming increasingly clear that Oscar Micheaux was something unique. More than any other American filmmaker of the silent era, he tackled incendiary topics head-on, and his work was more achingly autobiographical than the films of any of his black colleagues, including Spencer Williams, George Randall, and Noble Johnson. More than just a filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux has become a symbolic figurehead of a body of as many as five hundred “race films” made between 1909 and 1950—films about black Americans, for black Americans, often made by black Americans.

Micheaux modeled his life after that of Booker T. Washington, the African American educator who preached a philosophy of self-reliance for his race. He first used autobiographical novels as a forum to voice his Washingtonian philosophy, but when he discovered the populist appeal of cinema, he never looked back. At a time when the idea of an African American filmmaker would have been inconceivable in the Hollywood studio system, Micheaux pursued filmmaking with zeal, abandoning any semblance of financial security in the process.

While Micheaux and his peers are slowly being reevaluated by critics and academics, they remain contentious figures at best. Their films are rarely shown, and their names are absent from popular film histories, like David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film and Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film (which states that African Americans were not allowed to make “good features” until the 1970s). Even those who do acknowledge their existence sometimes downplay their achievements, for reasons both aesthetic and political. Because even though Oscar Micheaux is often called the D. W. Griffith of black filmmaking, he is almost as frequently compared to Ed Wood.

In What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), a sixty-second short directed by Edwin S. Porter and released by the Edison Company, a man on a train makes a pass at a lady passenger. She gently strings him along, and he keeps flirting. As the train heads into a tunnel, he jumps forward to kiss her. Seven seconds later, when the light returns, the man discovers that he kissed the woman’s black maid by mistake. He panics, curses, and rushes back to his newspaper while both women laugh.

Unless used for a cruel joke, race was generally ignored in the first decades of American cinema. When black characters were depicted, they were comic buffoons played by white actors in blackface, like in the Mack Sennett comedy Colored Villainy (1915), or A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904). The occasional “serious” works were little better: in Thomas Edison’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), blackfaced whites knelt and cried for their massahs in front of the camera, while genuine black performers milled about in the distance. The most notorious exception was D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which famously blamed the failures of Reconstruction on an unruly black populace.

A handful of proto-race movies predate Griffith’s film, though. A Fool and His Money (1912), directed by French expat Alice Guy-Blaché, featured an all-black cast and was marketed to black audiences. The Railroad Porter (1913), a comedy in the Keystone Kops vein, became the first film by a black director, William Foster. A writer for the Chicago Defender, Foster was early to recognize cinema’s power to influence, and dreamed of building his own studio to produce positive race-themed films. “Our brother white is born blind and unwilling to see the finer aspects and qualities of American Negro life,” he wrote in 1913. But it was the indignity of The Birth of a Nation that triggered the first film companies owned and operated by African Americans.

The year 1916 saw the launch of the Frederick Douglass Film Company, whose first production, The Colored American Winning His Suit, was advertised as an attempt to “offset the evil effects of certain photoplays that have libeled the Negro and criticized his friends.” Before folding, the company completed two more films about noble black men, The Scapegoat (1917) and Heroic Negro Soldiers of the World War (1919). In 1918, the Photoplay Corporation mounted The Birth of a Race, an ambitious rebuttal to Griffith conceived by Booker T. Washington and his secretary, Emmett J. Scott. In the fragments that survive, the film frames the history of mankind as an ongoing struggle of man against man, from Adam through Noah, Moses, Christ, Lincoln, and the First World War. In every era, God’s message of brotherly love and equality is thwarted. “Among the vast throng that listened were men of all races,” reads one title card. “But Christ made no distinction between them—His teachings were for all.” This expensive production was a major flop, but it was daring in its unabashedly pro-integration message.

While these films were in production, Oscar Micheaux was traveling the country as a self-styled success story, selling novels about his exploits. He was born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884, the son of former Kentucky slaves who migrated north after the Civil War. In his early years, he worked odd jobs and did manual labor, including a stint as a Pullman porter, while saving enough money to buy land in South Dakota. As the state’s “only colored homesteader,” Micheaux gradually won the respect of his white peers, and wrote about his triumphs in two semiautobiographical books.

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Will Sloan has written about culture for NPR and Random House, among others. He is from Toronto.

Paul Robeson in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, 1925 Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

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