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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

'A voice for the voiceless'
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Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

The original Black filmmaker


Oscar Micheaux, a legend in film

Born on Jan. 2, 1884, Oscar Micheaux was a perhaps the first truly outstanding black film director. In a time where black actors and general employment of African-Americans in the film industry was essentially nowhere to be found, Micheaux paved the way for many talented individuals to make a career for themselves.

“Race films” is the genre most closely associated with the work of Micheaux. His dense catalog consists of roughly 40 films, each of which made an effort to combat the negative stereotypes associated with African-Americans in virtually all other films that were being released throughout Micheaux’s life.

Micheaux’s work was seen as an outlet for black audiences to enjoy films which did not feature an all-white cast, and could more closely depict the experience of black people living in America at the time.

Originally a successful fiction writer, Micheaux was approached to translate his novel “The Homesteader” to a full length feature film. However, in the early stages of negotiation, Micheaux withdrew from the deal, as he would not have been able to direct the film nor be granted a budget he felt was suitable. In the wake of this, Micheaux took it upon himself to convert his publishing organization to the Micheaux Film and Book Company, and subsequently directed “The Homesteader,” which is widely regarded as the first feature-length film with a black director.

Micheaux made a second film just one year later entitled “Within Our Gates,” perhaps the work he is best known for. This film was understood as a response to D.W. Griffith’s utterly controversial “Birth of a Nation,” a film known to have glorified the Klu Klux Klan and make frequent use of blackface. Micheaux responded to Griffith by offering a more realistic interpretation of white supremacy in America,and upset a lot of people in doing so.

Scenes in the film depicted gruesome violence, namely the lynching of African-Americans and a scene involving an attempted rape. This did not affect the film’s long standing impact, as “Within Our Gates”was selected by the Library of Congress to become part of the National Film Registry. “Despite Micheaux’s limited budget and limited production values, [the film] still effectively confronted racism head on,” noted the Library of Congress.

Over the next thirty years, Micheaux’s career skyrocketed as he continued to shatter barriers time and time again. In 1931, he directed “The Exile,” making him the first black director to venture into films with sound. In the last film he made before his death, Micheaux became the first black director to have his film shown in a white theater with the release of “Betrayal” in 1948. Throughout his prosperous career, Micheaux made over forty films, making way for noteworthy actors such as Alice B. Russell, Lorenzo Tucker and Bee Freeman to thrive in such unlikely circumstances.

There is no question that the work of Micheaux played a massive role in inspiring later generations of black film and television icons. The works of famed artists such as Spike Lee and Tyler Perry have drawn stark connections to the likes of Micheaux throughout their esteemed careers. Without the bravery and excellence of Micheaux, it’s doubtful that  other black film figures would have had the platform to build their success.

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