Watch the Pioneering Films of Oscar Micheaux, America’s First Great African-American Filmmaker

You may nev­er have heard of Oscar Micheaux, but out of his “impov­er­ished con­scious­ness-rais­ing exploita­tion pot­boil­ers,” writes crit­ic Dave Kehr, “the Amer­i­can black cin­e­ma was born.” Kehr wrote that in a brief review of Micheaux’s Mur­der in Harlem, a “1935 mys­tery tale involv­ing corpses and mys­te­ri­ous let­ters and flash­backs and Byzan­tine plot twists, all of which should undoubt­ed­ly prove tax­ing to Micheaux’s mea­ger tech­ni­cal abil­i­ties. It hard­ly mat­ters though, since Micheaux was his own cin­e­mat­ic insti­tu­tion.”

That movie came in the late-mid­dle peri­od of Micheaux’s career, which pro­duced more than 44 pic­tures and qual­i­fied him as the most pro­lif­ic black inde­pen­dent film­mak­er in Amer­i­can cin­e­ma his­to­ry as well as, in the words of Atlas Obscu­ra’s Stephanie Weber, “a pio­neer in almost every aspect of film.” Hav­ing start­ed out as a writer, he chose for his first motion pic­ture to adapt The Home­stead­er, his own nov­el “about a black home­stead­er in the Dako­tas who falls in love with the daugh­ter of a Scot­tish wid­ow­er. In 1919, Micheaux raised the mon­ey on his own to film and pro­duce The Home­stead­er in Chica­go, becom­ing the first African Amer­i­can to make a fea­ture film.”

Not only did Micheaux take on a con­tro­ver­sial theme right away by hint­ing at the pos­si­bil­i­ty of inter­ra­cial romance (though The Home­stead­er’s love inter­est turns out, in a plot twist that must have made more sense at the time, not to actu­al­ly be white), his­to­ry has remem­bered him as stand­ing against not just the dom­i­nant social phe­nom­e­na but the dom­i­nant cin­e­mat­ic phe­nom­e­na of his day: his sec­ond film With­in Our Gates told the sto­ry of a mixed-race school­teacher whose adop­tive father stood up to the fam­i­ly’s white land­lord, osten­si­bly as a response to post-World War I social insta­bil­i­ty, though some took it as a rebuke to D.W. Grif­fith’s The Birth of a Nation.

“Giv­en the times, his accom­plish­ments in pub­lish­ing and film are extra­or­di­nary,” says NAACP His­to­ry, “includ­ing being the first African-Amer­i­can to pro­duce a film to be shown in ‘white’ movie the­aters. In his motion pic­tures, he moved away from the ‘Negro’ stereo­types being por­trayed in film at the time.” In recent years, crit­ics like Kehr and oth­ers have direct­ed a bit of atten­tion back toward Micheaux’s path-break­ing body of work, and many future lead­ing lights of black Amer­i­can cin­e­ma could no doubt ben­e­fit from dis­cov­er­ing it them­selves. But in his con­fi­dent treat­ment of sen­sa­tion­al mate­r­i­al, his cre­ativ­i­ty-induc­ing tech­ni­cal and eco­nom­ic lim­i­ta­tions, and his learn-on-the-job under­stand­ing of the mechan­ics of cin­e­ma, he also fore­shad­owed the excite­ment of all the waves of indie film to come.

You can watch many of Oscar Micheaux’s films free on Youtube or at the Inter­net Archive. Or find them in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

To learn more about Micheaux, read Patrick McGilli­gan’s book, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of Amer­i­ca’s First Great Black Film­mak­er

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

101 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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