Black filmmakers have struggled for representation as long as the movies have existed. As Hollywood took shape in the early half of the 20th century, Black directors were already looking for ways to push back on prevailing stereotypes. From the “uplift” films of the 1910s, produced via initiatives at the Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes, to the naturalistic shorts made by William Foster in Chicago, and the work of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company — the first Black-owned film production enterprise in the United States — there was no shortage of examples.
The most prolific and tireless voice during this period was Oscar Micheaux, who blazed trails in Black American cinema beginning with his 1919 feature debut, “The Homesteader,” the first feature film written and directed by an African American. It’s been 90 years since he became the first Black filmmaker to produce a sound feature film with “The Exile;” it’s been 70 years since his death. And still, Micheaux’s impact hasn’t been fully measured and recognized by Hollywood. As the HFPA faces a major reckoning over its diversity issues, and the awards infrastructure faces major questions about representation, Micheaux’s underappreciated legacy is worth another visit.
Micheaux produced and directed films at a time when Black people were still considered (by a virulently racist white establishment) undeserving of their humanity, let alone the freedom to tell their own stories. His “nothing is impossible” self-sufficiency, and the DIY nature of his films (arguably anointing him the first independent filmmaker) paved the way for indies that would follow. The child of a former slave, and America’s preeminent Black filmmaker for almost three decades, Micheaux started the Micheaux Film Corporation and made about 44 films, often as writer, director, and producer. Like Hitchcock, he often cameoed in his own work. He financed those movies any way he could — including, incredibly, selling stock in his company to white farmers in South Dakota.
This was the early 1920s. Considering the racial tenor of the times, it’s certainly apropos to wonder how a Black man of very humble roots, with a limited education, and virtually no technical or artistic training, became a filmmaker of note and created a film production company with a reputation that endured — until it didn’t.
“Body and Soul,” Paul Robeson, directed by Oscar Micheaux, 1925
Courtesy Everett Collection
His legacy has not been entirely disregarded; contemporary Black filmmakers like Spike Lee have been vocal about Micheaux’s influence. Lee even once called Micheaux his “idol” who “inspired me to do my first film.” In 1986, the Directors Guild of America honored Micheaux with a lifetime achievement award. In 2010, the US Postal Service issued a Micheaux commemorative stamp. In 2019, Micheaux’s masterpiece, “Body and Soul,” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The 1925 “race film” featured Paul Robeson, then 27 years old, in his motion picture debut. In 2017, HBO announced that it would develop a Micheaux biopic; Tyler Perry, whose own ascent mimics that of Micheaux’s, was on board to star.
Yet Micheaux has yet to be recognized in any way by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, aka the most famous and prestigious organization in the film world. (Note that the statuette it hands out each year to countless artists and crafts people is named “Oscar.”) That suggests either total ignorance, or perhaps a lack of appreciation among Academy brass for what he was able to accomplish as a Black man in Jim Crow America, but it’s time to do something about it.
One idea, whether the Academy or another organization goes for it, would be an annual award named after Micheaux designed to celebrate pioneering work of other relatively unknown Black artists of yesteryear. There’s gold in them thar hills.
After all, it’s not just Micheaux whose career has been rendered inconsequential. During the first half of the 20th century — specifically, 1937-1940 — more than 50 Black movies were produced. They diverged from the aesthetics of earlier Black films, like the inexpensive melodramas made by Micheaux, and imbecilic depictions of Black people in Hollywood fare. The intent was to appeal to the mainstream on their own terms. Many of those films are presumed lost.
“Dark Manhattan,” Cleo Herndon, Ralph Cooper, Jess Lee Brooks, 1937
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
The average movie buff will likely know about the films of Black performers and filmmakers who thrived, to an extent, prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and the first Black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel. But the enterprising work of Black actors, producers, and directors like Ralph Cooper (who wore all three hats) — also known as the Bronze Bogart and Dark Gable — are largely ignored.
Along with white producers Harry and Leo Popkin, Cooper co-founded Million Dollar Pictures, which produced around a dozen films during that four-year stretch, many of them starring the actor. He launched his career with “Dark Manhattan,” a 1937 crime drama that adapted the Hollywood gangster formula with an all-Black cast. Prior to film’s opening credits, a title card reads: “We dedicate this picture to the memories of R. B. Harrison, Bert Williams, Florence Mills and all of the pioneer Negro actors who, by their many sacrifices, made this presentation possible.”
Cooper also gave Lena Horne her first big break, casting her opposite himself in the 1938 musical, “The Duke Is Tops,” which he also directed and produced. Luckily, both “Dark Manhattan” and “The Duke Is Tops” can both currently be seen. “Manhattan” is part of a double-feature DVD (along with Micheaux’s 1937 crime drama “Underworld”), and “Tops” is available on streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers. In both cases, the image quality is subpar at best. Each would benefit from restoration.
On the documentary front, the trailblazing work of William Greaves, beginning primarily in the 1950s, still remains relatively overlooked. Beyond his most well-known films, notably the idiosyncratic, landmark “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (1968) — a film that fell into obscurity because distributors didn’t know what to do with it, but would be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry 47 years later — Greaves had a pioneering role in documenting and celebrating the Black experience in America.
He died in 2014, and the Academy has yet to officially recognize his avant-garde work. It did so indirectly in 2020, when the organization dished out grants to 96 film institutions and programs, including Hamilton College in New York. Hamilton then used the funds to finance a William Greaves retrospective, describing the documentarian as “the most accomplished African American filmmaker between the end of the ‘race film’ era in the 1940s and the arrival of ‘Blaxploitation’ and the ‘LA Rebellion’ in the 1970s.”
It’s not hard to get up to speed on Greaves’ work. Most of his films are accessible, even if it means making a trip to YouTube; however, several of the pre-WWII titles, including Micheaux films like “The Homesteader” (1919), “The Brute” (1920), and “The Conjure Woman” (1926), are among a long list of Black films presumed to be lost. These works, no matter how crude (many were made for a pittance, given the lack of financial mobility Black people were afforded at the time), deserve a measure of recognition for existing in the first place.
“The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” Nicole Berger, Harry Baird, 1968
Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s a relief that the industry now recognizes value in the works of Black filmmakers on whose shoulders present-day Black writers and directors stand. Melvin Van Peebles’ stylish, Nouvelle Vague-inspired debut, “The Story of a Three Day Pass” (1968) — recently restored and re-released with support from none other than the HFPA, is one example. It was the first feature-length narrative film (on record) directed by an African American since Micheaux’s last effort, 1948’s “The Betrayal.”
Additionally, Kino Lorber’s one-of-a-kind collection, “Pioneers of African American Cinema” (2015), unearthed some lost “race films,” a few by Micheaux, aiming to “shine a long-overdue spotlight on the trailblazing wave of Black American independent cinema” of the early 20th century.
The industry is even in the midst a nebulous “neo-blaxploitation” phase, as studios revitalize interest in what is still considered a contentious period for Black cinema. These once-niche films were made on the cheap, lionized pimps and drug dealers, and oversexualized Black women’s bodies; now they’re being repackaged and mainstreamed by Hollywood execs, produced with higher budgets and drawing, in some cases, top-shelf talent. “Shaft” and “Super Fly” were remade by major studios; in development are “Cleopatra Jones,” “Foxy Brown,” and “Dolemite.”
In 2017, Martin Scorsese launched an initiative to locate and restore classic African films via his Film Foundation, in partnership with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO. Dubbed The African Film Heritage Project, 50 films distinguished for their historic, artistic and cultural value were to be identified and preserved. Ultimately, the goal is to protect essential titles to ensure that new generations of African moviegoers can actually see, appreciate, and maybe even be influenced by them rather than the deluge of titles from the West that have flooded African markets for decades.
“Race films,” like those by Micheaux, have been neglected in part due to their perceived lack of value and limited reach; it parallels the muzzling of marginalized voices of the period. Note that the 1920s and ’30s had some of the highest concentration of work by Black filmmakers, the likes of which the industry wouldn’t see again until decades later.
Black film history is American film history, and the seeds planted by Black pioneers like Micheaux a century ago continue to proudly yield returns. They deserve to be celebrated and their trailblazing work held in the same high regard as their white contemporaries. Hollywood is making progress on celebrating current Black talent; now it’s time to take the long view.
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