Black people were hunted and killed for sport. Lynching black men and burning their bodies, in the midst of a family picnic atmosphere, was so common that a sincere but impotent bill drafted in Congress, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, had little effect. Shortly before the Anti-Lynching Bill, in 1915, D.W. Griffith produced Birth of a Nation based on a popular book and play. The film was a massive hit.
When it came to box office it was The Avengers of its day. It was a Ku Klux Klan recruitment film that earned the praise of President Woodrow Wilson. Birth of a Nation depicted black stereotypes so grotesque that even Flava Flav might say, from behind the counter of his fried chicken restaurant, “Yo, man. That’s far too much cooning and I’m both embarrassed and offended.”
Enter Oscar Micheaux (pronounced “Mee-show”). Micheaux certainly wasn’t the only black director and producer who made proactive black films, or Race Movies, as they were called back in the day. Peter Jones and William Foster also contributed to cinema that counteracted prolific images of bug-eyed Negro cowards and lacivious darkies as well. Some film historians contend that Oscar Micheaux wasn’t even the best of his time among black directors who were doing the same thing.
However, whether or not he was the first or the best, Oscar Micheaux’s name still resonates decades later as the most productive black filmmaker during a time when it was potentially dangerous to be one.
In today’s new world of a black President, a hostile Tea Party, a new generation of unarmed black men being hunted for sport, and minority babies suddenly becoming the majority…who will embody the spirit of the New Micheaux?
As Patrick Gilligan reveals in the biography, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, the director came forth into the world as the fifth child of former slaves, Calvin and Bell Micheaux. He had several jobs including a Pullman porter. But while many blacks embarked on the great migration to the North, Micheaux instead went West to seek his livelihood as a homesteader in Dakota around mostly white neighbors. A bad marriage mixed with worse financial luck turned him to writing novels and he titled one of his books, The Homesteader.
He wrote several more novels that he sold to his neighbors at a nice profit. Eventually, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a major black owned film company during the Race Movie era, took notice and attempted to buy his book. But Micheaux irritated Lincoln Motion Pictures by insisting on directing his own story, even though he had no experience, and the deal went sour. In the true spirit of a Western pioneer, Micheaux wrote, directed, and produced The Homesteader himself in 1918. The brazen gamble proved successful in making a name for himself.
The clip above Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies, produced by Pamela Thomas, directed by Pearl Bowser and Bestor Cram, written by Clyde Taylor.
Micheaux’s prior successes and failures honed a sharp business acumen that he used to effectively market and distribute his films as some of his former actors attested.
Opinions vary but it’s widely believed that Micheaux’s second silent film, Within Our Gates (1918), which is shown in its entirety at the link below, was a rebuttal to the cinematic cross burning known as Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates was a bold film for a black man to make at a time when lynchings were routine and encouraged. So who are the black directors with the courage to be that political these days? Obviously, there are brave and talented independent filmmakers who push the boundaries of today but many aren’t on the A-list. Not yet, anyway.
While militant white gays continue to scapegoat African-Americans for being more homophobic than the average bear, even while ignoring the racial hypocrisies of their own communities, (The Castro, anyone? Barney Frank’s recent Trayvon Martin joke, anybody?) there are nevertheless bold filmmakers like Dee Rees who directed the quiet, determined story of a black lesbian in Pariah. Rashaad Ernesto Green told the difficult journey of a transgender teen and her father in Gun Hill Road. Producing quality black and Latino gay movies, regardless of the filmmaker’s sexuality, is a powerful political act. Such films display even more backbone when considering that, just as in Micheaux’s time, gays are still in danger of being lynched.
Who else approaches the bravery of Micheaux in a world where black creators have learned to assimilate by producing hospital shows and political dramas that don’t show too many black people in them? Of course, the pink elephant in the room is Tyler Perry. Myriad articles have been written by Mr. Madea’s detractors and supporters and I don’t have anything new to add. Just like Micheaux, he catered to an under-served demographic and profited from it. Just like Micheaux, Perry’s film making prowess has been mocked. The more interesting question is are his films political acts like Micheaux’s?
A black man like Perry who beats out Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay as the most influential entertainer on the Forbes list is itself an act of political and social rebellion. But does he produce brave work? The Madea films, though rife with messages, are not all that brave. However, For Colored Girls could be seen as significant social commentary on today’s black woman depending on whether Perry’s fans or his detractors are offering the opinion.
Yes, there was a new black wave of filmmakers with powerful political voices in the 1990s. Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Mario Van Peebles and others led the way. But that was back in the 90s, wasn’t it? What about today? What’s Happenin’ Now? The provocative Spike Lee is coming at us soon with Red Hook Summer. Red Hook Summer premiered at Sundance and either excited critics or confirmed the fears that Mr. Lee’s best days were behind him. We’ll find out soon enough. Not to be outdone, the self-consciously weird Lee Daniels recently released The Paperboy at the Cannes Film Festival and answered that age-old question: What does it look like when Nicole Kidman pisses on a Disney character?
Gee. Thanks, Lee. We can always count on ya, buddy. And poor Zac Efron. What the hell happened, man? Why do I even ask? I know exactly what happened and it goes a little something like this:
(Commercial Announcer’s Voice)
When you star in High School Musical movies, people think you’re soft.
When people think you’re soft, you try to butch it up.
When you try to butch it up, you hang out with Nicole Kidman.
And when you hang out with Nicole Kidman, you get peed on in a bad Lee Daniels movie.
Don’t get peed on in a bad Lee Daniels movie.
Switch from cable to Direct-TV.
But I digress.
We were talking about bold black voices in the spirit of Oscar Micheaux. The most promising new voice, the one that really seems to have her act together, is Ava DuVernay. She earned the honor of being the first black woman to win the Best Director Prize for Middle of Nowhere at Sundance 2012.
In addition, she’s created AFFRM an autonomous distribution system, just like Oscar Micheaux, that isn’t dependent wholly upon the kindness of strangers to get her films seen. She’s making quality movies at a profit without compromising her point of view.
Although it’s debatable, the AFFRM model, and the world of independent film, provides the main hope of continuing the Spirit of Micheaux. Independent producers have much to express and less to lose. Compare those qualities to the black A-listers, who don’t want to appear too militant and drive away their crossover audience. Rappers can get away with challenging white folks as long as they provide a beat to dance to with barely intelligible lyrics. Filmmakers? Not so much.
I don’t want to perpetuate the lie that being successful means selling out. Nevertheless, when it comes to social and political impact, let’s hear it for the independents. Real independents. Not just multi-million dollar production houses who are “technically” independent.
Cheers for those intrepid souls who put it all on the line, personally and financially, from the days of Within Our Gates and up through Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Long may the new voices reign with creativity not so easy to rubber stamp, such as; Brother to Brother, Awkward Black Girl, and 761st.
Independents are pretty much all we’ve got when looking for projects with backbone and balls. Otherwise, it’s going to be a predictable future of flaccid amusements like The Help, The Butler, and “cool” white directors with a fetish for Blaxploitation telling us what to think about slavery. Without independent filmmakers, we are left with a neutered assembly of affluent black entertainers, devoid of progressive vision, who are more concerned with maintaining their own safe careers and making their own children stars.
Rest well, Mr. Micheaux. And thanks for everything.