Probably not well known but a very important artist and groundbreaker in the early days of cinema, Oscar Micheaux was definitely a man ahead of his time. He was the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century and the most prominent producer of race films. He produced both silent films and “talkies” as a film director and independent producer of more than 44 films.
Micheaux’s movies were a challenge to racial segregation and an alternative outlet for black moviegoers. He is thought to have written, produced and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948.
In response to D.W. Griffith’s outrageous and racist depiction of African-Americans in his landmark film“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) Micheaux produced “Within Our Gates” (1920). It is considered an important expression of African-American life in the years immediately following World War I when violent racist incidents occurred throughout the United States, but most frequently in the South. Produced, written and directed by Micheaux, it is his second and the oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director.
Lost for decades, a single print of the film, entitled La Negra (The Black Woman), was discovered in Spain in the 1970s. In 1992, “Within Our Gates” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.
On his style:
“My results…might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominate characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. 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.”
Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina, of heart failure. He is buried in Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas, the home of his youth. His gravestone reads: “A Man Ahead of His Time”.