Thursday, December 19, 2013

Film History Student Final Paper #1 - Oscar Micheaux

I am fortunate to teach Film/Video Production History in the Motion Picture/TV Department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. At the end of each semester, the students (who range from ages 18 - 21, usually) are required to write a paper about an auteur filmmaker of their choice. They are to provide an overview of the filmmaker's career and identify specific stylistic and/or thematic traits in his/her work that are "signatures," i.e. the things that make the filmmaker an auteur. I ask the students to write the paper in an informal, conversational tone, as if they are telling a story to a young person who knows nothing about the subject.  

I have picked three papers out of the bunch that I feel are worthy to be published here on my blog.  I'll be presenting the other two in the coming days.


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Oscar Micheaux: Auteur Filmmaker

Try to imagine a time when racism was okay to most people, when there were black and white water fountains and bathrooms, and when even movie theaters could be segregated. So, can you picture it? Probably not, and neither can I, honestly. It’s hard to imagine, but this stuff was a reality less than a hundred years ago in America. Isn’t that pretty crazy? Luckily for you and me today, we don’t have to deal with that kind of stuff like most people did back then. But men like Oscar Micheaux had to face those problems every day, for pretty much his entire life. And even though he faced all of those issues, he is known today as the first major African American filmmaker in history. Oscar was a director, screenwriter, and producer all wrapped into one dude. He’d definitely be a guy that I’d want to meet. So, are you interested in learning some cool stuff about Oscar Micheaux? I’m going to tell you about his life and career, his importance to the history of film, three of his movies, and why he’s considered an auteur. Are you more interested now? I hope so! So, let’s get started.

I mentioned earlier that Oscar Micheaux lived during a time when America was extremely racist and many places were segregated. Oscar was born on January 2, 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois. This was only about twenty years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Oscar’s parents were actually former slaves, which was pretty common at the time. Micheaux spent most of his time as a kid in Great Bend, Kansas, and then he moved to Chicago when he was seventeen because he needed a job. He found one there as a Pullman Porter, which is basically where you help passengers on trains. But by 1906, Oscar got bored with that job and decided to go West and buy some land in South Dakota. Oscar lived in South Dakota for eight years, and while he was there he wrote stories about his white neighbors. I guess they must have been pretty interesting people, because his stories eventually became his first novel, called, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. He published that book in 1913, but then there was a drought so he had to move to Sioux City, Iowa. In 1917 he rewrote his book and rereleased it as the novel, The Homesteader. (

Oscar’s new and improved novel was really popular, and an African American film company asked him if they could make it into a movie. But Oscar and the film company couldn’t agree to a deal, so Oscar decided to start his own company, which he called Micheaux Film and Book Company. He sold stock in the company to raise money to produce the movie on his own. When he finished the film, it was eight reels long.  It was a huge moment because Oscar Micheaux became the first African American to make a feature length film. So, The Homesteader premiered in Chicago in 1919, and it was a big hit. Oscar Micheaux’s second movie was called Within Our Gates, and it came out in 1920. That movie was a response to The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, which was the most popular film at that time and probably the most racist movie in history. Over the next thirty years, Oscar continued to make films. He wrote, produced, and directed over forty-five of them from 1919 to 1948, which was unheard of for African Americans at the time. In 1931, Oscar made history again when his movie, The Exile was the first full-length sound film by an African American. His last film, Betrayal in 1948 also made history because it was the first movie made by a black person to be shown in a white movie theater. A few years later, Oscar Micheaux died on March 25, 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina. After he died, The Directors Guild of America awarded him the Golden Jubilee Special Directional Award in 1986. In 1987, he received a star on the Walk of Fame. (

If you’ve been following this essay, you now know why Oscar Micheaux is an important filmmaker in the history of film. As I mentioned he was the first black filmmaker to make a feature length film in 1919, the first black filmmaker to make a feature length sound film in 1931, and was the first black filmmaker to have his movie shown in a white theater in 1948! Oscar was part of a film movement called race films. These were motion pictures made by black people with an all black cast, made for black audiences. Most race films were made from the early 1920s to the 1950s. Race films were meant to challenge segregation and to address other social problems and stereotypes that black people faced back then. ( (

Oscar Micheaux is considered an auteur filmmaker. He is an auteur because all of his movies feature a non-stereotyped black cast, made for a black audience, and challenged segregation, racism, racial violence, the education system, and poverty. His movies were meant to erase the popular racist stereotypes of black people back then. To explain how Oscar Micheaux is an auteur, I’m going to discuss three of his films, which are Within Our Gates, Murder in Harlem, and Body and Soul. (

Within Our Gates came out in 1920. It was a response to the very racist The Birth of a Nation,” made by D.W. Griffith. Instead of the black people being evil and the bad guys as in Griffith’s movie, Oscar’s movie told his side of the story and portrayed black people as the good guys. His film took place in the present and was meant to show people the real problems that African Americans faced during that time, which included poverty, the Jim Crow laws, lack of education opportunities, and lynching. Oscar used a cast of real black people in this movie, unlike Griffith who used white people in black face in his. In all of Micheaux’s films, he wanted to show America that black people were just as intelligent and respectable as white people. This movie contains racial violence, too, because towards the end of the movie the main character Sylvia’s adoptive parents are lynched for a murder to which they have no connection. They are murdered just for the fact that they are black. The film contains struggles with poverty and the education system because the main character’s goal is to raise money to support African American students in the Deep South. These are examples of signature traits that Oscar Micheaux incorporated in his movies.

Second—Murder in Harlem, which came out in 1935.  This movie is basically about a black night watchman who finds a dead young woman in the basement of the chemical factory where he works. After he reports the dead woman to the police, he is falsely accused of the murder because he is black. But it turns out that a white man committed the murder. This movie is important to Micheaux’s career as an auteur because it contains one of his signature film traits, which is racism and violence. It is a classic example of a black person being punished for something that he didn’t do, which was a very common racist thing at that time. Like Within Our Gates, this film had black main characters that are very intelligent and are not racist stereotypes.

My last example is the movie Body and Soul, which came out in 1925. In a nutshell, this movie is about a shady preacher that steals money from his church congregation and from a young woman and her mother. The mother doesn’t realize that the preacher is bad and tries to arrange a marriage between him and her daughter. The daughter sees that the preacher is a bad guy and ends up exposing him. But before she gets the chance to expose him, she dies. The mom is sad, but then she realizes that she had dreamt the whole story all along. The daughter ends up marrying a good man. Pretty complex plot, right? As in the other two films, this movie contains traits that prove Oscar Micheaux is an auteur. The mother and daughter are victims of the poverty that black people faced during Oscar’s time. The movie features an all black cast, and the main characters, the mother and daughter, are non-stereotypical black people.

To me, Oscar Micheaux is probably the most important African American filmmaker in history. Just think about all of those milestones that he set, such as being the first black person to make a feature length film, or the first black filmmaker to have their film shown in a white theater. Those accomplishments can never be repeated! Not to mention that his movies are quite good and unique, in my opinion. In fact, since this paper is finished, why don’t you go and watch one of his movies right now? Who knows, it might inspire you to change society like Oscar Micheaux did.

Works Cited

Within Our Gates. Prod. Oscar Micheaux. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. By Oscar Micheaux.
Perf. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement Corp., 1920.

Body and Soul. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement Corp.,
1925. Youtube.

Murder in Harlem. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement
Corp., 1935. Youtube.

"Oscar Micheaux." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Dec.

"Mystery History Theatre." Mystery History Theatre RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013.

"Oscar Micheaux Biography." A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 07 Dec.

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