From 1919 to 1948, Oscar Micheaux directed 42 films with all-black casts shown to black audiences in black theatres.
In Classified X, a documentary about Hollywood’s history of racist portrayals of African-Americans, a montage ends on a shot of a frightened black actor, teeth chattering, seeking consolation from his white boss.
“Why is he so scared?” asks narrator Melvin Van Peebles. Cutting to the iconic photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men falsely accused of raping a white woman, Van Peebles adds: “Well, wouldn’t you be?”
It was under similar circumstances that Oscar Micheaux, cinema’s first important black filmmaker, released Within Our Gates in 1920. An answer to The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 revisionist ode to the American South, whose black characters — grotesque caricatures — were played by white actors in blackface, Micheaux’s film showed the true plight of the black community during the oppressive Jim Crow era.
“He made these movies at a time when it was probably dangerous for him to make and show to his audience,” says Jesse Wente, head of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox. His eight-film retrospective of Micheaux’s works kicks off there on Saturday, February 1.
From 1919 to 1948, when the majority of roles available to black actors in mainstream cinema consisted of porters, subservient maids and buffoonish farmhands meant for comic relief, Micheaux directed 42 films with all-black casts shown to black audiences in black theatres. His characters were free of the ridicule derived from blackface minstrelsy, sheet music artwork and offensive marketing gimmicks that had long been popular.
“He represents the birth of the American independent cinema movement,” adds Wente, speaking on the phone from Los Angeles. “Operating outside of the standard procedures of filmmaking, he didn’t have the budgets that Griffith or other silent masters had and sometimes had to struggle to get his films shown.”
Struggle he did. While The Birth of a Nation enjoyed lush, orchestra-led revivals in several American cities, Chicago’s film censors nearly banned Within Our Gates. The previous summer, Chicago had been gripped by a series of racially motivated riots. “The censors said explicitly: This film will incite race riots,” says Alice Maurice, associate professor at the University of Toronto, who will lecture on race and film before Saturday’s screening of Within Our Gates. “They were essentially hiding the fact that the violence was actually happening,” adds Maurice.
The film — eventually passed, albeit in a highly edited form — showed the truth; the Library of Congress records show that 76 black Americans were lynched in 1919. “Using the same tools as D.W. Griffith, Micheaux was undoing the kinds of deceptions he’d long seen,” says Maurice, who recently published the book “The Cinema and Its Shadow.”
Racially charged imagery was onscreen upon the birth of cinema in the 1890s. “Some were worse than others in terms of their racism,” says Maurice, “but they’re all essentially treating African-Americans as objects and often laughed at.”
Also problematic is that race was fundamental in how film learned to tell stories. In What Happened in the Tunnel (1903), a white man sits on a train behind a white woman and her black maid. When the train enters the tunnel, signified by a fade-to-black, he kisses the white woman, who unbeknownst to him has switched seats with the maid. “He’s horrified, but they think it’s funny,” she says of Edwin S. Porter’s short. “It’s the early period where they’re trying to figure out how to tell a story within a one-shot, static frame. I try not to be pessimistic about it, but I feel like these racial hierarchies and images are actually part of Hollywood’s DNA.”
In 1919, when Micheaux released his first film, The Homesteader, segregation dominated every aspect of American society, from public washrooms, lunch counters, nightclubs, even its cinemas. “If you were black, you’d generally enter from a separate entrance and sit in the balcony,” says Maurice.
Theatres catering exclusively to black patrons emerged in many cities — like the Lincoln Theater in Kansas City, Missouri — and this is where Micheaux’s films were screened. Still, those theatres struggled with neighbouring competition. “Colour line or not, the segregated theatres still wanted the audience to fill the house. They would often target black audiences with special nights or promotions.”
Many of Micheaux’s actors were later lured by Hollywood, including Paul Robeson, who stars in Body and Soul.
But despite his success, Hollywood never called on Micheaux, even in the early days of sound, when studios produced all-black films.
“It would have been difficult for him to make the movies he wanted to make, but I think America would be a different place today if he’d gone to Hollywood,” says Wente.
But for Micheaux to have gained entry would suggest that America was a different place then.
Wente sighs. “Such is the history of race in America.”