Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era


Oscar Micheaux-the most prolific African-American filmmaker to date and a filmmaking
giant of the silent period-has finally found his rightful place in film history. Both artist and showman, Micheaux stirred controversy in his time as he confronted issues such as lynching, miscegenation, peonage and white supremacy, passing, and corruption among black clergymen. He emphasized the importance of education and the rights of citizenship (the vote, equal protection under the law) for racial uplift, to advance race progress, to awaken black consciousness, and to correct negative behavior within black communities. These films spoke to black moviegoers in ways that were completely different from Hollywood pictures.

In this important new collection, prominent scholars examine Micheaux's surviving silent films, his fellow producers of race films who alternately challenged or emulated his methods, and the cultural activities that surrounded and sustained these achievements. The essays shed new light on the feature filmmaking of Richard Maurice (Detroit), David Starkman and the Colored Players Film Corporation (Philadelphia), and Richard Norman (Florida), as well as the stardom of Evelyn Preer, Lucia Lynn Moses, Paul Robeson, Charles Gilpin, and Lawrence Chenault. Studies of the shorter films shot in 16mm by ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston and religious reformers James and Eloyce Gist (Washington, D.C.) fill out the complex picture of an era.

Authors examine Micheaux's films (and novels) from a range of perspectives, including his radical aesthetic strategies, his uses of stereotypes, his powerful critiques of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Eugene O'Neill's race plays, his radical uses of other texts (notably the novels of Charles Chesnutt), and his work with such genres as the Western. The relationship between black film and both the stage (particularly the Lafayette Players) and the black press, issues of underdevelopment, and a genealogy of Micheaux scholarship, as well as extensive and more accurate filmographies, give a richly textured portrait of this era. The essays will fascinate the general public as well as scholars in the fields of film studies, cultural studies, and African American history. This thoroughly readable collection is a superb reference work lavishly illustrated with rare photographs.

Contributors include Pearl Bowser, Jayna Brown, Corey Creekmur, Jane Gaines, Gloria J. Gibson, J. Ronald Green, Arthur Jafa, Phyllis Klotman, Charles Musser, Charlene Regester, Louise Spence, Clyde R. Taylor, Sr. Francesca Thompson, and Michele Wallace.


Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser

This catalog accompanies a seven-part program of American race films, which is premiering at the Giornate del Cinema Muto and will then be distributed by the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in a 35mm film format. The resulting Oscar Micheaux and His Circle package embraces virtually all of the surviving feature-length race films from the silent period as well as a selection of related shorts. These pictures were made between the end of World War I and 1930. Of the seven features, three were made by African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (based in Chicago; Roanoke, Virginia; and then New York), two by the Colored Players Film Corporation located in Philadelphia, one by the Detroit-based Richard Maurice, and one by Richard Norman’s film company in Arlington, Florida. The shorter films were made for a wide variety of purposes: some are 35mm shorts that might be shown before a feature. Others were shot in 16mm: for the church circuit by James and Eloyce Gist and for ethnographic purposes by Zora Neale Hurston. Oscar Micheaux, recognized in his time as the foremost African-American filmmaker of this period, emerges as the central figure of this book. Enough films by his contemporaries survive for us to gain a context for his work. While these other films are certainly of considerable importance in their own right, it is Micheaux who emerges as a major figure of the New Negro Renaissance that flourished in the wake of World War I. In truth, Micheaux also emerges as one of America’s great directors, someone of absolutely world-class stature whose work is dense, rich, and complex. His films demand and reward repeated viewing and extensive critical engagement.

As Charles Hobson remarked at the recent Yale University conference on the AfricanAmerican filmmaker, “If there hadn’t been an Oscar Micheaux there wouldn’t have been an Oscar Micheaux.” This multitalented novelist, director, and screenwriter, virtually selftaught, belonged to no movement or school and appeared literally out of nowhere—from the South Dakota prairie. The odds were historically against the appearance of such a prolific African-American filmmaker at such an early date and so suddenly out of the plains. How Micheaux, born in 1884 to former slaves as one of eleven children in Metropolis, Illinois, came to homestead near Gregory, South Dakota, is another story, a story he told in his first novel, The Conquest (1913) and returned to in other writings, notably The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915), The Homesteader (1917), and finally The Wind from Nowhere (1943). In fact, Micheaux launched his film career with the adaptation of The Homesteader, which premiered in 1919. Of course, Micheaux never stopped telling his homesteading stories, which were the basis of so many of the seven novels and approximately forty feature-length films that he produced between 1918 and 1948. And he was always pioneering—as he sold stock to finance the Micheaux Book and Film Company, as he “hand-

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