AFRICAN-AMERICAN CINEMA

Publicity portrait of American film director, producer, and author Oscar Micheaux (1884 – 1951) (Photo by John Kisch Archive/Getty Images)

Oscar Micheaux born January 1884 and died March 1951, is considered one of the great fathers of African American Cinema, he was an author, film director and independent producer of 44 films, both silent and sound. In the early years, after several types of employment, including a Pullman Porter on the major railway network. The job became an informal education, it enabled travel and interaction with new people. He also gained knowledge about the world.

Oscar Micheaux

When he left the employment on the railroads, he had seen and experienced vast areas of the United States and made connections with wealthy people who assisted in his business ventures. His first novel ‘The Conquest’ was published in 1913. The story line mainly autobiographical, questions the true worth of the American Negro. 

The book attracted an offer from a film company in Los Angeles, unable to agree on terms, the deal fell apart as the company withdrew its offer.

African American Rural Living 1910

Soon after, Micheaux set up his own film and book publishing company and released his first film ‘The Homestead’ in 1919. The silent black & white film features a rocky relationship between a Black couple. The male lead actor looking for love among his own people, resisted his many white female lovers, and marries an African American woman. The film premiered in Chicago, achieving critical and commercial success.

Image for the Film ‘Within Our Gates’

‘Within Our Gates’ was released in 1920, a silent movie set within the Jim Crow era, it contrasted the experiences of African Americans who stayed in the rural areas, and others who had migrated to the city and become urbanized. Oscar Micheaux utilised his films to portray racial injustice suffered by Black Americans, including lynching, mob violence, and employment discrimination.

Still Image From A Micheaux Movie

The major themes of his films featured contemporary Black life in America. He dealt with Black-on-Black relationships, the challenges of social interactions between Black & White people, and the barriers faced by Blacks trying to achieve and progress in the larger society. He also attempted to remove the degrading stereotypes and negative portrayal of Black people by white American film producers.

Still Image From A Micheaux Movie 1920s

His films questioned the value systems of both African American and Euro-American societies. In his films there were many characters of different classes and motivations. He states the search for truth was the predominant characteristic of his films. “I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington, to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not.”

Haile Gerima & Ava DuVernay 2021 – photo Al Seib

In the contemporary era, another person in a similar mode to Micheaux, is Haile Gerima, an independent filmmaker and professor of film at Howard university in Washington DC. His film ‘Harvest 3000’ in 1976, won the grand prize at Locamo film festival and propelled him into international acclaim. 

‘Ashes and Embers’ followed in 1982, tells the story of a disillusioned Black veteran of the Vietnam war, returning to urban life of oppression among his people in America. Gerima epic ‘Sankofa’ in 1993, was ignored by US distributors. He Independently, booked, and sold-out screenings in theatres across America, eventually achieving worldwide success. 

Still Image from Sankofa

Still Image From Sankofa
Still Image From Sankofa

His creative output is defined by stories deeply rooted in memory, identity, and political consciousness, which he described as “my imperfect cinematic journey.” Exploring concepts of identity and independence, from the beginning he wanted to use his work as a critical lens for personal growth and creative development.

In 1996, Gerima founded the ‘Sankofa Video and Bookstore’ in Washington DC, a cultural space that offers opportunities for discussions, film screenings, book signings, scholar forums and artist showcase. He continues to make, distribute, and promote his own films. ‘Teza’ in 2008, won the best screenplay award at the Venice film festival. He conducts workshops in screenwriting and directing, 

Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones 1970s

Today, in America, the big giants in the industry still protect the global marketplace, determine the popular subject matter that dominates, and which films are made visible. 

After the support and sponsorship of Hollywood to produce the genre titled ‘Blaxploitation Movies’ in the 1970s. When the craze settled down, not much came after, everything almost dried up. Not much happened in the world of Black filmmaking, why?

However, there were huge groups of independent young filmmakers all over the Black worlds making movies. When Spike Lee with his company 40 Acres and a Mule, released ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ in 1986, made with an investment of US$175,000 and generating a box-office income of US$ 7.1 million. A brand-new energy and adventure began, excited times was in the making, access into the filmmaking industry was achieved by many people, but at a price. 

As part of the on-going development of the cultural and creative industry, the work now, apart from overcoming the limited stereo-typics of Euro-American mass-media productions, that reduce people of African descent to mere capers. Great original dynamic films from our best filmmakers, many not known nor seen by global audiences are ready for streaming. The solution then is developing our own genuine market and global market-place, among the huge number of people from an African descent. Who will definitely consume meaningful expose, accounts, stories, and products relating to their everyday living and life. When this is achieved all blessings will follow. The Film Reviewer