The First Great African-American Filmmaker: Before Spike Lee and John Singleton, there was Oscar Micheaux

The First Great African-American Filmmaker: Before Spike Lee and John Singleton, there was Oscar Micheaux

August 18, 2016

Almost a century before the 2016 protests about the lack of minority representation among Academy Awards nominees, a group of African American entrepreneurs sought to transform the predominantly white American film industry. Among the very first was Oscar Micheaux. The son of slaves and an autodidact, Micheaux became the first African American to produce a full-length feature film.

Micheaux was a revolutionary filmmaker who wrote, produced, and directed groundbreaking movies with all-black casts that countered stereotypes and explored explosive racial issues. His films addressed interracial relationships, “passing,” and lynching, taboo subjects that were central to the black experience in the early twentieth century. Micheaux sought, he later explained, to “present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range. . . . [in order to] raise [African Americans] to greater heights.”

Despite limited access to capital and equipment during the Jim Crow era, Micheaux became a prolific producer of “race pictures” that were primarily restricted to theaters for African American audiences. All in all, he directed more than forty black-and-white silent or “talking pictures” over the course of his lifetime.

In spite of these impressive accomplishments, Micheaux died in poverty in 1951 at age 67 and his name gradually faded into obscurity during the decades that followed. After his death, Micheaux’s wife burned his business papers and many of his powerful films were lost over time. In recent years, however, historians have finally begun to recover much of the story of one of the nation’s earliest black filmmakers.