New appreciation for the first black filmmaker

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Times Staff Writer

As the first African American feature filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux had no distribution machinery in place for his work. So he would often drive from town to town to present his latest film to black audiences who were tired of seeing themselves portrayed by white filmmakers as lazy, shiftless, cowardly -- if they were portrayed at all.

African American men took the brunt of these negative stereotypes, often being depicted in such films as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, “The Birth of a Nation,” as sex-crazed rapists of white women. To add to the indignity, white actors wearing black-face makeup played the African American characters in these films.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 15, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 19 inches; 679 words Type of Material: Correction
Film photo -- A photo accompanying an article in Friday’s Calendar about filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was misidentified as being from the director’s 1919 movie “Within Our Gates.” The photo was actually from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, “The Birth of a Nation.”

“He put on the screen all sorts of issues that had been taboo up to that point -- rape, concubinage and, of course, lynching,” says film historian Jan-Christopher Horak. “When he made ‘Within Our Gates’ in 1919, it was a direct response from the African American community to ‘Birth of a Nation.’ ”


“Within Our Gates” deals with the killing of a wealthy landowner by a white man. But a black man is blamed, and when a white lynch mob can’t find that individual, they grab another black man at random and kill him. “You actually see the lynching,” Horak says.

Despite making 41 films between 1919 and 1948, Micheaux died in obscurity in 1951 while attempting to scrape together enough cash to make another movie. For years, he was a forgotten figure. Only four of his silent films still exist and several of his talkies have also disappeared.

Micheaux, however, has experienced a renaissance in the last two decades. His career has been reevaluated in several books and articles, and his existing films have been shown at festivals, archives and even on television. While Hollywood may have turned its back on him during his career, the Directors Guild of America honored him in 1986 with a special Directorial Award. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Micheaux’s life and legacy are now the subject of a Black History Month exhibition at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. “America’s First African American Filmmaker,” which opened Thursday, explores his films through video clips and photographs, original poster art, documents and personal letters.

The exhibition has been a pet project of Horak, the museum’s curator. “It was really high time in this town,” he says, adding that many contemporary African American filmmakers still look down their noses at Micheaux. “They have other agendas,” he says. “They don’t necessarily want to be identified with Micheaux.”

Some modern black directors, he says, cite the poor production values in Micheaux’s films. In fact, most of the “race films” that were made through the early 1950s by African Americans for black audiences were anything but artistic triumphs.


“Micheaux was not into technology per se,” he says. “He didn’t care if there were jump cuts or mismatched cuts. That was not his interest. For a long time, he was denigrated because of his lack of Hollywood values.”

But several new studies on Micheaux, Horak says, come to the filmmaker’s defense, pointing out that “striving for Hollywood values should not necessarily be seen as a good thing.

“African American filmmakers have had to water down and compromise on a lot of issues to make them saleable within the white power structure, whereas Micheaux, because he was in a situation of racial segregation, was producing for an African American community totally. He raised his own money. He was the first independent. The lack of production values should not be seen as wrong, but a kind of counter cinema to the white cinema.”

Race films were usually screened in the segregated South at midnight shows at white-dominated theaters. African Americans, though, had their own urban theaters in the North. Still, Horak says, the total U.S. market for these films was a maximum of 300 theaters.

“You had to make films on a shoestring because there was no way to advertise them in that limited market, no matter how many African Americans went. And they were very, very popular when they were being made.”

Born to a poor family in Metropolis, Ill., in 1884, Micheaux left the town at the age of 17 to become a Pullman porter in Chicago. In 1905, he acquired land in South Dakota and tried his hand at farming. Though he eventually failed, his experiences inspired him to write his first book, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer” in 1913. In 1917, he rewrote the book as “The Homesteader,” which he published himself, selling the book door to door.


Micheaux raised funds for his movies by selling stock to African Americans. He would promise investors great rewards, but they rarely saw a return. Another ploy was to tell well-to-do people that he’d put their children in the movie if they made an investment.

He may have bilked people, says Horak, “but he did it for a good reason. He never lived ostentatiously. He put the money literally into the films.”


‘America’s First African American Filmmaker’

Where: Hollywood Entertainment Museum, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Ends: April 6

Price: $8.75, adults; $5.50, seniors; $4.50, students; $4, children 5-12; free to museum members and children under 5