How Oscar Micheaux challenged Hollywood to make the first feature film completely black

Movies and television productions such as Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and When They See Us break box office records and win awards for their representation of African-American fantasy and events. While celebrating Black History Month 2020, we are far from the beginning of cinema a century ago, when racial unrest swept America and the big screen was as segregated as the rest of the country.

BlacKkKlansman and Do The Right Thing director Spike Lee celebrates Oscar Micheaux at a stamp dedication ceremony in 2010.
Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images
But one thing has not changed: Ryan Coogler, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and other black filmmakers maintain control of their stories by writing, directing and producing them. In the early days of cinema, black creators had to do the same to build their own alternative to Hollywood. And few did more than Oscar Micheaux, the man who made The Homesteader of 1919, the first film with a completely black cast.

Micheaux, a self-taught iconoclastic African-American filmmaker and non-conforming entrepreneur, unswervingly tackled race, segregation, censorship and other problems that still resonate today when The Homesteader turns 100.

“Micheaux produced films that challenged pre-existing views on race,” explains film historian Charlene Regester of the Oscar Micheaux Film Society, “and showed that there was an audience that wanted representations of black life on the screen.”

The bold and open Micheaux was “Muhammed Ali decades before his time,” writes Patrick McGilligan in his book Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only. Comparing it to the praised cinematographic pioneer D.W. Griffith, McGilligan marvels that Micheaux’s first four films “have earned their place as a star in the American film.”

That legacy began over a hundred years ago with The Homesteader, but the seeds were sown much earlier in Micheaux’s dramatic real-life events.

A newspaper ad for the first completely black feature film, The Homesteader, which turned 100 this year.

Micheaux Citizen
Micheaux was born in rural Illinois in 1884 in a family of former slaves. After working as a railroad janitor and in other servile jobs, it was dedicated to agriculture in South Dakota lands that the United States government appropriated the Native Americans. His farm was in the Rosebud Indian Reserve, an appropriate name, as the dramatic events that took place there shaped his whole life, just as the protagonist of the Kane Citizen of Orson Welles was chased by his infamous Rosebud.

Micheaux’s farm grew. He married a woman named Orlean McCracken, but he fought for money with his father preacher. This dispute, along with drought and debt, annihilated Micheaux’s business.

Undeterred, he began writing novels based on the dispute with his religious father-in-law, selling them door to door. He relied on the story of his own life to explore the African-American experience, but the cunning showman encouraged him with romance, murder, a happy ending and a provocative twist when the heroine turned out to be a black woman “passing” white. “Nothing would make people more anxious to see an image,” he said later, “than a lithograph that says & # 39; Will the races marry? & # 39;”

Micheaux was working outside of Hollywood, but his ambition was more than a match.

Micheaux’s wife, then separated, Orlean never saw him turn his marriage fight towards a new career. Trampled by a horse, she died after being rejected from a hospital for whites only.

Segregation was one of the main causes of riots when the United States exploded in the red summer of 1919. Thirty-eight people died in Chicago and hundreds more were killed and injured throughout the country.

The films were very different for black and white viewers, both in segregated cinemas and in the films themselves. White producers and white stars controlled Hollywood, and white actors with black faces often played grotesquely racist “color” characters.

There were some completely black movies in the silent era. William Foster was the first black director, with the brief comedy in the Keystone Kops style The Railroad Porter in 1912, while Ebony Film Corporation of Luther Pollard made westerns, newscasts and completely black comedies of two reels, collectively known as “racing images” .

The closest to a black movie star was Noble Johnson, hired by Universal Pictures but interested in producing films that play African-American heroes. He courted Micheaux in the hope of adapting The Homesteader to a movie, but Johnson’s bosses in Hollywood rejected the deal.

Then Micheaux decided to do it alone.

A lobby card for the 1921 silent film The Mystery of Gunsaulus, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux.

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images
In a few months, Micheaux went into production. Ignoring the burgeoning film industry in Los Angeles, he recruited theater actors from the East and Midwest coast, vaudeville players and musicians. For the character based on his wife Orlean, Micheaux saw 21-year-old Evelyn Preer preaching in a corner. Preer became the protagonist of Micheaux throughout his career, earning the nickname “The Queen of Color Cinema”.

Micheaux ran to the corn fields of Iowa to film the harvest before the script ended. He worked so fast that the whirlwind production was completed at Christmas 1918. It cost $ 15,000, a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production, but it’s still an unheard of amount for a career movie. And it lasted two and a half hours. Even Charlie Chaplin did not make a feature film until two years later.

Micheaux was working outside of Hollywood, but his ambition was more than a match.

Thousands of spectators gathered to see The Homesteader in the most prestigious black theater in Chicago, the Vendome, photographed here in 1944.

Hansel Mieth / The Life Picture Collection through Getty Images
A new age
The Homesteader premiered on February 20, 1919 in a theater packed with 8,000 seats in Chicago. An opera singer, jazz musicians and a newscast about the African-American infantry unit that the Illinois Black Devils played before the screening.

The Homesteader was announced as a “new era in the achievements of the darkest races.” And the audience loved it.

Among the enthusiastic critics of the time, Half-Century magazine said: “Many scenes are classified in power and workmanship with the greatest of Western white productions.”

He was immediately banned, thanks to Micheaux’s real-life nemesis intrigue: the father of his deceased wife. But Micheaux defended himself and thousands more people attended the screenings at the most prestigious black theater in Chicago, the Vendome. Micheaux then hit the road, personally taking the movie’s impression to cinemas throughout the Midwest and South. Sometimes he rented entire theaters to play the movie, a tactic known as “four walls” and controversially used by Netflix to manage movie releases for movies like Rome.

Micheaux produced and directed 16 talkies, which made him the only luminaire in the film of the era of silence that crossed into the era of sound.

Unfortunately, black viewers only paid between 10 and 25 cents for a ticket, much less than white spectators in the big city who paid a dollar or three. And despite Micheaux’s hopes that the film would cross, the white audience would simply not look at the images of the race.

Meanwhile, a brief mention of abortion in The Homesteader caused censors to order the entire scene to be cut. Censorship pursued Micheaux throughout his career: his later film Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson, had four of the nine reels cut by the authorities. But Micheaux did his best, exploiting the gaps and occasionally cheating. He once put a different title on a printed film and placed it in theaters in Virginia before the authorities found out. And he relied on these experiences to write the 1923 Deceit movie, a story about censorship.

Each alteration on the part of the censors meant that the physical film strip itself was pirated, and the impressions simply crumbled. You can still watch rare and significant films made by Micheaux and other black filmmakers on BFI’s DVD and Blu-Ray Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, but most of Micheaux’s 44 films have been lost to us, including The Homesteader

Birth of outrage
For his next film after The Homesteader, Micheaux pointed to the controversial epic Birth of a Nation, which represented Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Inside our doors become D.W. The odiously racist story of Griffith in his head representing the character of Evelyn Preer brutalized by the white oppressors.

“Micheaux was incredibly bold,” says film historian Regester, “suggesting that where Griffith describes blacks as terrifying, true terrorists from Micheaux’s perspective are whites who sexually attack black women.”

A movie poster for Micheaux’s drama, Birthright, from 1939, a new sound version of his own previous silent film in which a Harvard graduate returns to his hometown in the south to open an industrial training school for African Americans, but he faces a racist banker.

Within Our Gates survives today, and you can even watch it on YouTube. McGilligan, the author of Micheaux’s biography, calls the film a “cunningly written milestone, sometimes beautifully directed.”

It was quickly banned in the south.

Over the next three decades, Micheaux produced films at a prodigious pace. Although it was not considered great by the standards of the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement of the 1920s, it often addressed social issues while monitoring business perspectives. Today he is remembered as an African-American film pioneer, including a recent tribute in the first episode of HBO Watchmen.

He also returned to the real-life incidents represented in The Homesteader over and over again. Micheaux’s first talkie, The Exile, even added numbers of songs and dances. This luxurious 1931 film won Micheaux another milestone for black cinema: the first full-length sound film with a black cast.

Micheaux produced and directed 16 talkies, which made him the only luminaire in the film of the era of silence that crossed into the era of sound.

“The fact that he was able to make as many films as he did in a span of 30 years would make it remarkable in itself,” says film historian Jeff Hinkelman. “That these films give us an invaluable window to racial concerns in that period of time gives man and his work immeasurable importance.”

Micheaux died in 1951. He was 67 years old and bankrupt. “I like to think that he died incorrigible and unaffected,” says J. Ronald Green in his book With a Crooked Lick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux, “not only writing in history but rewriting irreverently and optimistically the stories of America.”

Micheaux’s final film, The Betrayal, was another account of the incident at Rosebud Reservation’s farm.

Like citizen Kane, Micheaux could not let Rosebud go. Even at the end of his life, he was still The Homesteader.

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