Black filmmakers have struggled for representation as long as the movies have existed.
As Hollywood took shape in the early half of the 20th century, black directors were already looking for ways to push back on prevailing stereotypes. From the “uplift” films of the 1910s, produced via initiatives at the Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes, to the naturalistic shorts made by William Foster in Chicago, and the work of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company — the first black-owned film production enterprise in the United States — there was no shortage of examples.
The most prolific and tireless voice during this period was Oscar Micheaux, who blazed trails in Black American cinema beginning with his 1919 feature debut, The Homesteader, the first feature film written and directed by an African-American. It’s been 90 years since he became the first black filmmaker to produce a sound feature film with The Exile; it’s been 70 years since his death.
And still, Micheaux’s impact hasn’t been fully measured and recognised by Hollywood. And his underappreciated legacy is worth another visit.
Micheaux produced and directed films at a time when black people were still considered (by a virulently racist white establishment) undeserving of their humanity, let alone the freedom to tell their own stories.
His “nothing is impossible” self-sufficiency, and the DIY nature of his films (arguably anointing him the first independent filmmaker) paved the way for indies that would follow. The child of a former slave, and America’s preeminent black filmmaker for almost three decades, Micheaux started the Micheaux Film Corporation and made about 44 films, often as writer, director, and producer.
Like Hitchcock, he often cameoed in his own work. He financed those movies any way he could — including, incredibly, selling stock in his company to white farmers in South Dakota.
This was the early 1920s. Considering the racial tenor of the times, it’s certainly apropos to wonder how a Black man of very humble roots, with a limited education, and virtually no technical or artistic training, became a filmmaker of note and created a film production
His legacy has not been entirely disregarded; contemporary black filmmakers like Spike Lee have been vocal about Micheaux’s influence. Lee even once called Micheaux his “idol” who “inspired me to do my first film”.
In 1986, the Directors Guild of America honoured Micheaux with a lifetime achievement award. In 2010, the US Postal Service issued a Micheaux commemorative stamp. In 2019, Micheaux’s masterpiece, Body and Soul, was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In 2017, HBO announced that it would develop a Micheaux biopic; Tyler Perry, whose own ascent mimics that of Micheaux’s, was on board to star.
Yet Micheaux has yet to be recognised in any way by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, aka the most famous and prestigious organisation in the film world. (Note that the statuette it hands out each year to countless artists and crafts people is named “Oscar.”) That suggests either total ignorance, or perhaps a lack of appreciation among Academy brass for what he was able to accomplish as a black man in Jim Crow America, but it’s time to do something about it.
One idea, whether the Academy or another organisation goes for it, would be an annual award named after Micheaux designed to celebrate pioneering work of other relatively unknown black artists of yesteryear.
After all, it’s not just Micheaux whose career has been rendered inconsequential.
From 1937-1940, more than 50 black movies were produced. They diverged from the aesthetics of earlier Black films, like the inexpensive melodramas made by Micheaux, and imbecilic depictions of Black people in Hollywood fare. The intent was to appeal to the mainstream on their own terms. Many of those films are presumed lost.
The average movie buff will likely know about the films of black performers and filmmakers who thrived, to an extent, prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and the first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel.
But the enterprising work of black actors, producers, and directors like Ralph Cooper (who wore all three hats) — also known as the Bronze Bogart and Dark Gable — are largely ignored.
Along with white producers Harry and Leo Popkin, Cooper co-founded Million Dollar Pictures, which produced around a dozen films during that four-year stretch, many of them starring the actor.
He launched his career with Dark Manhattan, a 1937 crime drama that adapted the Hollywood gangster formula with an all-Black cast. Prior to film’s opening credits, a title card reads: “We dedicate this picture to the memories of RB Harrison, Bert Williams, Florence Mills and all of the pioneer Negro actors who, by their many sacrifices, made this presentation possible.”
The full article is available at https://www.indiewire.com/2021/05/oscar-micheaux-pioneering-black-filmmaker-1234636108/