In early American film, African-Americans were portrayed in a very offensive and racist way. An example of this is in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. This film is what helped spark the beginning of Black American Cinema. An African-American director named Oscar Micheaux responded to Griffith’s film and created many films portraying African-Americans as being perfectly normal and realistic. This paper will discuss how Micheaux changed the way African-Americans were portrayed in cinema and how he helped start Black American Cinema.
This can be seen by studying some of Micheaux’s earliest films including: The Homesteader (1919), Within Our Gates (1920), and Veiled Aristocrats (1932). D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation was very controversial because of the way black men were portrayed. There is a scene in which a black man attempts to rape a white woman. This scene tries to make black men seem evil and dangerous. Also all of the black men in the film are shown to be very unintelligent.Order now
Mainstream film companies portrayed black men largely as humorous objects – dim witted, slow moving, shiftless caricatures who would not threaten mainstream audiences” (Butters 5). Many of the actors were not even black. A lot of the actors were white men dressed in blackface. This film also shows the Ku Klux Klan as being the good guys of the story and also being heroic. “A deeply racist film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation was bitterly attacked on its release by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its allies” (Stokes 20).
This film caused many African-Americans to protest the film. There were race riots and protests in many urban cities. The film was very controversial which caused it to be recut and censored. “Repeatedly recut by censors who deemed the harrowing sequences of lynching and attempted rape too incendiary in the wake of the Chicago race riots of 1919” (Zimmermann 122). This film was a prime example of the racism that existed during this time period. The African-American Civil Rights Movement didn’t start until the mid 1950s and even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there is still racism in the world.
Oscar Micheaux was a very important figure in the starting of Black American Cinema. He made films that depicted black men as being intelligent and educated. “Throughout the silent era, Micheaux created cinematic portrayals of African-American manhood that stood in sharp contrast to Hollywood’s depictions” (Butters 5). Micheaux’s films along with films made through the Lincoln Motion Picture Company were what started Black American Cinema. The Northern urban cities were the first places that had theaters that catered to black audiences.
These theaters were owned and built by African-Americans. The North and Midwest cities are where a large portion of southern blacks migrated. Chicago is where most of the race movies begun. Oscar Micheaux’s films were extremely controversial. In some countries, his films were heavily censored or even banned. “Swedish censors notoriously edited out violence and harsh language. They did not do this in order to prevent riots, but with the notion that such expressions would harm the morality of youth, women, and members of the working class” (Gustafsson 32).
The reason Micheaux’s films were so important was because of the way he portrayed African-Americans. In most of Micheaux’s films, he portrays the world in the way he thinks is accurate. Oscar Micheaux’s first film was called The Homesteader. It was actually based on a book he had written with the same name. This film is thought to be the first film to have been created with an all black cast and crew. Micheaux was going to have the film produced through the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, but he wanted more control of the film.
He decided to establish his own film and book publishing company. It was called The Micheaux Film and Book Publishing Corporation. The Homesteader was well-received and resulted in launching Micheaux’s new career as a filmmaker. In The Homesteader, Micheaux’s goal in this film was to show African-Americans that it was very possible for them to become successful. Micheaux attempted to demonstrate the qualities needed to be a successful black man (Butters 6). The film also depicts an interracial romance, in which was very controversial at the time.
Micheaux didn’t try to make black people inferior to white people in his films. Instead he tried to show what he thought was the realistic representation. “Whereas most other race films displayed a highly idealized image of black people, Micheaux represented African-American life as he saw it, with representations of both good and bad” (Gustafsson 32). This film was the start of Black American Cinema and the film industry now became very segregated. Oscar Micheaux’s most important film was called Within Our Gates (1920).
It is Micheaux’s second film and is actually the oldest surviving film that was made by a black director. It was a direct response to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates is a representation of the injustices that African-Americans faced in the very racist society of the time. It shows white supremacy and racial violence. “A powerful and enlightening cultural document and a landmark film, Within Our Gates is no less relevant today than it was in 1920. It resonates and reverberates with racial profiling, defunding of education, diaspora, the War on Terror” (Zimmermann 122).
The film shows a lot of lynching, which made southern white people look terrible and inhumane. The film does the exact opposite of what The Birth of a Nation did. It depicts a white man attempting to sexually assault a black woman. Micheaux wanted to express the fact that it was more likely for a white person to do harm to a black person. This film helped express the struggles African-Americans had to face because of racism. Micheaux’s films were shot using very impressive camera and editing techniques.
The editing and camera work was very well done and could compete with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. “’Within Our Gates’ also counters The Birth of a Nation in the politics of its aesthetics, specifically in its very different use of parallel editing” (Siomopoulos 111). Another important race film that Micheaux created was Veiled Aristocrats. This film depicts racism by showing that light-skinned people are treated better compared to dark-skinned people. The main protagonist of the film is an African-American that is fairly light-skinned.
This allows him to pass as a white man and allows to him to be successful. The plot of this story is very creative because it shows a different type of discrimination. Even though the main characters are in fact African-American, they are actually prejudice toward dark-skinned black people. Micheaux shows how people with mixed-race heritage also struggled. The ending of the story promotes racial equality and shows interracial couples as being perfectly normal. Micheaux expresses racial equality through this film and promotes civil rights.
Micheaux was the first African-American to create a film. He was also the first African-American to create a film that was shown in white movie theaters. This shows how his films were revolutionary. By creating very well made films and portraying black people in a realistic way, Micheaux played a huge role in the advancement of the African-American culture. Black American Cinema in a way pushed segregation, which does not promote racial equality, but by making films that portray African-Americans as equal did a lot to help. In the whole experience of the race there has been no aid to visualization comparable to the cinema” (Siomopoulos 113). Micheaux’s films helped African-Americans find ways to battle racism. Black American Cinema became a key factor in racial equality. “Movie theaters were important sites of black urban culture, where African Americans could both engage in mass culture and adapt it to the needs of the black community, especially through the live musical performances that would accompany the films” (Siomopoulos 113). Racism has always been a serious problem in society.
Today racism still exists, but it is not nearly as common. Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to create a film and he helped start the Black American Cinema movement. By studying his films: The Homesteader (1919), Within Our Gates (1920), and Veiled Aristocrats (1932) it is obvious that he played a huge role in changing the way African-Americans were portrayed in films. By moving away from the terrible black stereotypes, Oscar Micheaux created films that really contributed to an attempt of racial equality.
Butters, Gerald R., Jr. “Homestead to Lynch Mob: Portrayals of Black Masculinity.” The Journal for MultiMedia History 3 (2000): 1-18. Web.
Gustafsson, Tommy. “The Visual Re-Creation Of Black People In A ‘White’ Country: Oscar Micheaux And Swedish Film Culture In The 1920S.” Cinema Journal 4 (2008): 30. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
“Oscar Devereaux Micheaux.” Bio, A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
Siomopolous, Anna. “The Birth Of A Black Cinema: Race, Reception, And Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates.” Moving Image 2 (2006): 111. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
Stokes, Melvyn. “Race, Politics, And Censorship: D. W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation In France, 1916-1923.” Cinema Journal 1 (2010): 19. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
Zimmermann, Patricia. “Revisiting And Remixing Black Cinema.” Moving Image 2 (2006): 119. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.