Nearly 100 years ago, Oscar Micheaux wrote, directed and produced dozens of films spanning both the silent and early sound eras. Being an influential pioneer of early cinema is an impressive enough accomplishment, but Micheaux has yet another distinction: he was the first African-American to produce a feature-length film.
On Feb. 6 and 7, Columbia University School of the Arts hosted a two-day conference on his work, titled "Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and the Pre-War Early Black Cinema." Drawing on a new generation of Micheaux scholarship that has emerged since the discovery of two of his "lost" silent movies, the conference, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and University Seminars on Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation at Columbia University, was convened to celebrate his work and examine the difficulties he faced in making his films.
"The contributions of Oscar Micheaux make him a primary figure not just in black independent film, but all of American cinema," said Jamal Joseph, chair of the Columbia film program. "His talent, resourcefulness, vision and sheer guts have inspired generations of filmmakers to make their films by any means necessary."
Born in Illinois in 1884, the son of freed slaves, Micheaux left home at an early age for Chicago before moving to South Dakota to become a homesteader, an experience that provided the basis for a self-published and distributed novel, The Homesteader. In 1918, Micheaux founded his own book and film publishing company, and turned The Homesteader into a movie, selling stock to white businessmen and farmers in Iowa to finance the project. It was the first of Micheaux's 12 silent-era films, many of which are thought to be lost.
When prints of two of Micheaux's lost silent films, Within Our Gates and Symbol of the Unconquered, were re-discovered in 1991, the critical thinking on his work and legacy underwent a transformation. Together with a third film, Body and Soul, they form a silent-era trilogy that has stimulated new scholarship and shed light on what it meant to be a black American at the start of the 20th century.
Lectures and panel discussions with scholars from across North America, as well as screenings of the films—some of which had never been seen before—addressed such topics as early black cinema actors and actresses and the restoration and exhibition of re-discovered archival films.
"No one had ever attempted a major retrospective of Micheaux's work that included his existing sound films as well as his silent films," said Jane Gaines, a Columbia film professor who co-organized the conference with fellow Columbia film professor Richard Peña. "The Film Society of Lincoln Center gave us the chance to do both a film retrospective and a conference." Films by Micheaux and his contemporaries were screened at the Walter Reade Auditorium at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on the evening of Feb 6. and all day Feb. 7.
Gaines said that Micheaux represents "independent filmmaking at its tenacious best, overcoming obstacles to find a public and refusing to be discouraged by bad press and tough times."
Micheaux achieved popular success but did not shy from stirring controversy, earning the scorn of press critics and censors by depicting subjects that disconcerted black and white audiences alike. In Symbol of the Unconquered, for instance, a black man passing for white rides with the Ku Klux Klan against a black oil prospector, and in Body and Soul, a black preacher—played by Paul Robeson in his first screen role—rapes a loyal churchgoer's daughter.
"We're still trying to figure out what he meant for his age since he was both vilified by the black press and adored by black filmgoers," Gaines said.
When Micheaux came to New York he lived close to Columbia, at 48 Claremont Avenue, noted Joseph, the film program's chair, adding that he was proud that Columbia was the first to host a conference in New York City on Micheaux's work. "It is an amazing way to honor his life and celebrate Black History Month."
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