On Sounds Good, Tracy Ross and Walter Metz, professor in the Department of Cinema & Photography at Southern Illinois University, discuss the life and career of pioneering African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
Metz attended graduate school in the late 1980s around the time that race movies, films made in the 1910s and 1920s for black audiences and featuring black casts, were being rediscovered. Metz says African Americans were not allowed to work in Hollywood with the exception of demeaning roles such as maids and porters, so the African American community developed a separate cinema. Race films were generally made in northeastern cities that had strong middle class African American communities able to finance the films. Micheaux's films were somewhat of an exception in that they forwarded rural over urban values.
Micheaux was born in or near Metropolis, Illinois, and moved to Chicago with his brother at the age of 17. Metz says he was horrified by northern urban living and ended up buying land in South Dakota to become a homesteader. After his wife stole his money, he left the homestead and wrote the novel The Homesteader based on his own experiences. The self-published book sold out of the available 1,000 copies and caught the attention of a Chicago filmmaker. After realizing the filmmaker would not allow him to direct the film, Micheaux decided to produce The Homesteader himself through his own Micheaux Book and Film Company. He went on to produce an estimated 44 films.
“What I noticed was that the film history textbooks that I had learned from as an undergraduate almost didn’t mention Micheaux at all despite the fact that there were huge book chapters on individual D.W. Griffith Films,” Metz said.
Now, Metz says the textbooks cover Micheaux in almost equal terms of Griffith when discussing how race relations defined American civilization between the late 19th and early 20th century, during which time the cinema was born. Micheaux was the most famous producer of race films. His film, Within Our Gates, followed a light-skinned African American woman who was attacked by a white man and showed the lynching of the woman’s parents. Metz says the film was a response to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which he says centered around the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the false idea that black men wondered the American countryside attempting to rape white women.
“To see Within Our Gates after being taught that the most important film of the 1910s was Birth of a Nation was quite a shock and it really fueled in film studies an attempt to unearth as many of these race films as possible,” Metz said.
The recently released Pioneers of African-American Cinema includes a collection of 9 Micheaux films. Metz says the collection of films is impressive because most films of such age have now disintegrated if not precisely preserved.