Oscar Micheaux: American Independent

TIFF Cinematheque - Black History Month

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The legendary Oscar Micheaux — the most prolific, successful, and indeed only African American writer-director-producer in the first half-century of American cinema — is spotlighted in this eight-film retrospective.

Films in Oscar Micheaux: American Independent

    • Alice Maurice on Within Our Gates
    • Alice Maurice, Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto and author of the new study The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema, discusses the controversy surrounding the pioneering African American filmmaker's silent classic Within Our Gates.

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    • Body and Soul
    • One of Micheaux's biggest box-office hits and considered by many to be his masterpiece, Body and Soul features the screen debut of legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson.

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    • The Symbol of the Unconquered
    • When oil is discovered on the land of black homesteaders, the local white population plots to drive them off of their property, in Micheaux's screen adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel The Homesteader.

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    • God's Step Children
    • Oscar Micheaux
    • Critic J. Hoberman called Micheaux's tale of a light-skinned black girl's tragic homecoming "as profound and powerful an embodiment of American racial pathology as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation or John Ford's The Searchers."

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    • The Girl from Chicago
    • Oscar Micheaux
    • An undercover federal agent falls in love with a beautiful young schoolteacher while investigating an organized crime ring, in this underworld thriller considered by many to be Micheaux's finest sound film.

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    • Veiled Aristocrats and Birthright
    • These sound remakes of two of Micheaux's early silent films are daring and incisive studies of how oppressed peoples can become complicit in their own domination.

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    • Murder in Harlem
    • Oscar Micheaux
    • A black night watchman is accused of the murder of a young woman in Micheaux's sound remake of his 1921 silent The Gunsaulus Mystery, which was based on the notorious 1913 trial and lynching of Leo Frank.

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From the 1920s to the 1940s, Oscar Micheaux was the most prolific, successful — and indeed only — African American writer-director-producer in American cinema. A Pullman porter and farmer before he established himself as a successful author with his self-published novel The Conquest: The Story of a Black Pioneer, Micheaux made his move into filmmaking in 1918 when he was approached by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company — the country's largest producer of "race" movies, i.e., films targeted at African American audiences in the segregated theatres that specifically catered to them — for the film rights to his novel The Homesteader. When Micheaux demanded creative control over the film adaptation, negotiations quickly broke down; undeterred, Micheaux set up his own production company and made the film himself, launching a remarkable three-decade career of proudly independent filmmaking.

Although Micheaux's films typically pattern themselves after Hollywood genres — musicals, crime thrillers, melodramas, etc. — they question, criticize or invert the ideological bases of those genres. Micheaux's most famous film, Within Our Gates — often viewed as his response to D.W. Griffith's landmark racist epic The Birth of a Nation — exemplifies his particular progressive approach in its depiction of the horrors of lynching and the racist culture of the American South, and its distinctly middle-class vision of African American self-improvement. (Micheaux was a dedicated disciple of African American self-help guru Booker T. Washington, to whom he dedicated the novel of The Homesteader.) Educated, socially conscious and determined to make a place for themselves in mainstream (middle-class) society, Micheaux's heroes stand in stark contrast to the antiquated and denigrating portrayals of African Americans that dominate so much of Hollywood history.

While some later commentators have criticized Micheaux for the essential conservatism of his social philosophy, by presenting contemporary African American experience on screen his work intrinsically defies and protests the colonialist mythmaking upon which so much of the North American cinema was built, blazing a trail for the later, more radical work of such African American filmmakers as Melvin Van Peebles, Charles Burnett and Spike Lee. As with the rising generation of Indigenous filmmakers, who share a similar history of marginalization and racism with African Americans and have likewise offered images of modern Indigenous life as a counterpoint to the "history" portrayed in Hollywood's golden age, Micheaux's is a cinema of opposition: a weapon to fight against the colonialist ideology that resides at the core of both establishment filmmaking and establishment politics. In this, as in so many other ways, Micheaux was the very definition of American independence.

— Jesse Wente