Recently, Turner Classic Movies aired director Charles Burnett’s 1990 film To Sleep with Anger, and HBO Max offered a feature on Burnett in addition to adding the movie to its roster. In September, Criterion will release a box set featuring four films by Melvin Van Peebles, including his seminal The Story of a Three-Day Pass, a 1967 look at race and relationships. The aforementioned filmmakers are part of a long line of directors in Black American cinema, which began as far back as the silent era and included the notable Oscar Micheaux, whose oeuvre contains five movies made in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
“The Black American cinema,” World Film Directors Volume One 1890-1945 reports, “began as a direct response to the racist bigotry of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915),” a silent film based on the 1905 Thomas Dixon, Jr. novel The Clansman.
In a 2017 New Yorker review of the documentary Birth of a Movement, Richard Brody explained, “long before the 1915 première of Griffith’s film, racism in America had been officially canonized, both in the Jim Crow laws of the South and in a Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, from 1896, that deemed such laws constitutional under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ accommodations.”
The Birth of a Nation allows 21st century viewers a discomforting glimpse into the racist propaganda of the early 20th century. As Brody notes, Griffith portrays “freed slaves as slovenly, frivolous, and lazy” and “the Ku Klux Klan as the sole defense of white women against the depraved lust of black men.” The movie has the added notoriety of being the first motion picture screened in the White House Family Theater, largely in part because of Griffith’s friendship with then-President Woodrow Wilson.
“Wilson hardly needed persuading,” Brody writes. “He was a Southerner, and, as a historian, he had written in support of the Ku Klux Klan. As President, he resegregated federal offices that had formerly been integrated.”
The N.A.A.C.P. unsuccessfully attempted to ban Griffith’s film in Boston. The Birth of a Nation went on to become a hit nationwide, but it also spurred a Black cinema movement. World Film Directors cites Birth of a Race, directed by Emmett J. Scott, chief aide to Booker T. Washington, as the first Black film and a response to Griffith’s. “The picture was a failure, but other Black producers entered the arena with more success.”
One of those was Micheaux, born in 1884 on a small farm 40 miles from Cairo, Illinois to parents who were former slaves. At the age of 17, Micheaux took to the road, picking up odd jobs along the way and eventually settling in South Dakota where he began a career as a novelist.
By the time Micheaux’s third book was released, he was approached by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company about making a movie version of it. When the deal fell through, he decided to film it himself, establishing the Micheaux Book and Film Company in 1918 and setting up operations at Selig Studio in Chicago where The Homesteader was shot as a full-length movie at a cost of $15,000.
The film opened in Chicago in 1919 and soon recouped a third of Micheaux’s investment, but even that amount was “still more than most Black movies earned” at the time, according to World Film Directors.
“For economic rather than aesthetic reasons, Micheaux shot on location wherever he could, interiors as well as exteriors, often using homes and offices belonging to friends and acquaintances who could be flattered into providing the director with free sets,” World Film Directors explains. And he would soon be drawn to the East Coast and the advantages Fort Lee, New Jersey offered a promising filmmaker.
Next Week: The New Jersey Films