Films and TV productions like Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and When They See Us break box office records and win awards for their depiction of African-American fantasy and fact. We’re a long way from cinema’s beginnings a century ago, when race riots tore across America and the big screen was as segregated as the rest of the country.
BlacKkKlansman and Do The Right Thing director Spike Lee celebrates Oscar Micheaux at a stamp dedication ceremony in 2010.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
But one thing hasn’t changed: Ryan Coogler, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and other black filmmakers keep control of their stories by writing, directing and producing them. In the early days of cinema, black creators had to do the same to build their own alternative to Hollywood. And few did so more than Oscar Micheaux, the man who made 1919’s The Homesteader, the first feature-length motion picture with an all-black cast.
A self-taught, iconoclastic African American filmmaker and maverick businessman, Micheaux unflinchingly tackled race, segregation, censorship and other issues that still resonate today as The Homesteader turns 100.
“Micheaux produced films challenging pre-existing views regarding race,” explains film historian Charlene Regester of the Oscar Micheaux Film Society, “and demonstrated an audience existed which desired representations of black life on screen.”
The audacious and outspoken Micheaux was “Muhammed Ali decades before his time,” writes Patrick McGilligan in his book Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only. Comparing him with lauded cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, McGilligan marvels that Micheaux’s first four films alone “earned his place as a stellar figure in American film.”
That legacy began a century years ago with The Homesteader, but the seeds were sown in the dramatic events of Micheaux’s real life.
A newspaper ad for the first all-black feature film, The Homesteader, which turned 100 years old this year.
Micheaux was born in rural Illinois in 1884 to a family of former slaves. After working as a railroad porter and in other menial jobs, he took to farming on South Dakota land the US government appropriated from Native Americans. His farm stood on the Rosebud Indian Reservation — a fitting name, as the dramatic events unfolding there shaped his entire life, just as the protagonist of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was haunted by his infamous Rosebud.
Micheaux’s homestead grew. He married a woman named Orlean McCracken but quarreled over money with her preacher father. This dispute, along with drought and debt, wiped out Micheaux’s business.
Undeterred, he began writing novels based on the feud with his religious father-in-law, selling them door to door. He drew on his own life story to explore the African-American experience, but the shrewd showman jazzed it up with romance, murder, a happy ending and a provocative twist as the heroine turned out to be a black woman “passing” for white. “Nothing would make people more anxious to see a picture,” he later noted, “than a litho reading ‘Shall the races intermarry?'”
Micheaux’s then-estranged wife Orlean never saw him spin their marital strife into a new career. Trampled by a horse, she died after being turned away from a whites-only hospital.
Segregation was a major cause of rioting when America exploded in the Red Summer of 1919. Thirty-eight people died in Chicago and hundreds more were killed and injured across the country.
Movies were very different for black and white viewers, both in the segregated theaters and in the films themselves. White producers and white stars controlled Hollywood, and white actors in blackface often played grotesquely racist “colored” characters.
There were some all-black films in the silent era. William Foster was the first black director, with the short Keystone Kops-style comedy The Railroad Porter in 1912, while Luther Pollard’s Ebony Film Corporation made all-black, two-reel westerns, newsreels and comedies collectively known as “race pictures.”
The closest to a black movie star was Noble Johnson, contracted to Universal Pictures but keen to produce films playing African-American heroes. He courted Micheaux in the hope of adapting The Homesteader into a film, but Johnson’s Hollywood bosses nixed the deal.
So Micheaux decided to go it alone.
A lobby card for 1921 silent film The Gunsaulus Mystery, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Within a few months, Micheaux raced into production. Ignoring the burgeoning Los Angeles movie industry, he recruited East Coast and Midwest stage actors, vaudevillians and musicians. For the character based on his ill-fated wife Orlean, Micheaux spotted 21-year-old Evelyn Preer preaching on a street corner. Preer became Micheaux’s leading lady throughout his career, earning the nickname “The Colored Queen of Cinema.”
Micheaux raced out to Iowa cornfields to film the harvest before he’d even finished the script. He worked so fast the whirlwind production was completed by Christmas 1918. It cost $15,000 — a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production, but still an unheard-of amount for a race picture. And it was two-and-a-half hours long. Even Charlie Chaplin didn’t make a feature-length picture until two years later.
Micheaux was working outside Hollywood, but his ambition was more than a match.
Thousands of viewers crammed in to watch The Homesteader at Chicago’s most prestigious black theater, the Vendome, pictured here in 1944.
Hansel Mieth/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images
A new era
The Homesteader premiered Feb. 20, 1919, to a packed 8,000-seat theater in Chicago. An opera singer, jazz musicians and a newsreel about African-American infantry unit the Illinois Black Devils played before the screening.
The Homesteader was advertised as a “new epoch in the achievements of the darker races.” And the audience loved it.
Among the rave reviews from the time, Half-Century Magazine said: “Many scenes rank in power and workmanship with the greatest of white western productions.”
It was immediately banned, thanks to the scheming of Micheaux’s real-life nemesis: the father of his deceased wife. But Micheaux fought back, and thousands more people crammed in to screenings at Chicago’s most prestigious black theater, the Vendome. Micheaux then hit the road, personally lugging the film print to theaters across the Midwest and South. Sometimes he rented out entire theaters to play the film — a tactic known as “four-walling” and controversially used by Netflix to manage theatrical releases for films like Roma.
Unfortunately, black filmgoers only paid between 10 and 25 cents for a ticket, much less than the big-city white viewers who laid out a buck or three. And despite Micheaux’s hopes that the film would cross over, white audiences simply wouldn’t watch race pictures.
Meanwhile, a brief mention of abortion in The Homesteader caused censors to order the whole scene cut. Censorship dogged Micheaux throughout his career: His later film Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson, had four of the nine reels cut by authorities. But Micheaux gave as good as he got, exploiting loopholes and occasionally straight-up cheating. He once put a different title on a movie print and snuck it into Virginia theaters before authorities got wise. And he drew on these experiences to write the 1923 film Deceit, a story about censorship.
Every alteration by censors meant the physical film strip itself was hacked up — and the prints simply fell apart. You can still see rare and significant films made by Micheaux and other black filmmakers in the BFI’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema DVD and Blu-Ray box set, but most of Micheaux’s 44 films are lost to us, including The Homesteader.
Birth of indignation
For his next film after The Homesteader, Micheaux took aim at the controversial epic Birth of a Nation, which depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Within Our Gates turned D.W. Griffith’s hatefully racist storyline on its head by depicting Evelyn Preer’s character brutalized by white oppressors.
“Micheaux was incredibly audacious,” says film historian Regester, “by suggesting that where Griffith depicts blacks as terrorizing, the real terrorizers from Micheaux’s perspective are whites who sexually assault black women.”
A movie poster for Micheaux’s 1939 drama Birthright, a talkie remake of his own earlier silent film in which a Harvard graduate returns to his Southern hometown to open an industrial training school for African Americans but faces a racist white banker.
John Kisch/Getty Images
Within Our Gates survives today, and you can even watch it on YouTube. McGilligan, the Micheaux biography author, calls the film an “astutely written, at times beautifully directed, landmark.”
It was quickly banned in the South.
For the next three decades, Micheaux turned out movies at a prodigious rate. Although he wasn’t considered cool by the standards of the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement of the 1920s, he often tackled social issues while keeping an eye on commercial prospects. Today he’s remembered as a pioneer of African-American cinema, including a recent tribute in the opening episode of HBO’s Watchmen.
He also returned to the real-life incidents depicted in The Homesteader again and again. Micheaux’s first talkie, The Exile, even added song and dance numbers. This lavish 1931 film won Micheaux another milestone for black cinema: the first full-length sound feature with a black cast.
Micheaux produced and directed 16 talkies, making him the only silent-era race-picture luminary to cross over into the sound age.
“The fact he was able to make as many films as he did over a 30-year span would make him noteworthy in and of itself,” says film historian Jeff Hinkelman. “That those films provide us with an invaluable window into racial concerns across that time frame gives the man and his work incalculable significance.”
Micheaux died in 1951. He was 67 and bankrupt. “I like to think he died incorrigible and undaunted,” says J. Ronald Green in his book With a Crooked Lick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux, “not only writing himself into history but irreverently and optimistically rewriting the stories of America.”
Micheaux’s final film, The Betrayal, was yet another retelling of the incident on the Rosebud Reservation homestead.
Like Citizen Kane, Micheaux couldn’t let go of Rosebud. Even at the end of his life, he was still The Homesteader.
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Originally published Dec. 27.
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