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  • Writer's pictureMark Taylor

Race Films & Oscar Micheaux

During the early days of film, there were actually two separate film industries - one Black and one White. The pioneers of what came to be known as Race Films, like Oscar Micheaux, used the power of cinema to challenge and rebut stereotypical depictions of African American life and culture and served as a means of expression for artists who were excluded from mainstream filmmaking. They were able to take universal themes and place them in a specific context; thereby illustrating the commonalities of the issues, struggles and lives of African Americans to mainstream audiences.

Oscar Micheaux is thought to have written, produced and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948, though the bulk of his films were eventually lost. In 1919, he produced a big screen version of his novel, The Homesteader, which was the first full-length feature produced by an African American filmmaker. A sometimes controversial trailblazer, Micheaux continued to make films for the next three decades until his death on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Micheaux's movies were known as "race" films—made by black filmmakers, with an all-black cast for black audiences. These projects were a reaction, and a necessity, to what was then a segregated Hollywood industry and a segregated society. 

Micheaux's second film, 1920's Within Our Gates, was his response to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, one of the most popular movies at the time that also glorified the racial hatred group the Ku Klux Klan. Gates attempted to challenge Nation's message by showcasing more realistic ideas around white supremacy. In the movie, a biracial teacher Sylvia Landry goes North to raise funds for a school attended by African-American sharecroppers amidst a romantic subplot. Gates was highly disturbing in its themes, showcasing the lynching of black innocents, the near rape of the main character and a subservient preacher who secretly laments that he's selling out his race. 

The Symbol of the Unconquered  was Micheaux’s fourth feature-length film and, along with Within Our Gates, is one of his earliest surviving works and  was discovered in Belgium's National Film Archives. The central section of The Symbol of the Unconquered, currently lost, hinges on the Black community's success in repelling a raid by the KKK, and much of the story serves to discredit the Klan's claims of justification for their violence against African-American communities. The film was restored by The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the version in the Kino Lorber collection Pioneers of African-American Cinema is paired with a wonderful score by Max Roach.

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