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Film Notes: the trailblazing career of Oscar Micheaux

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Oscar Micheaux's entrepreneurial spirit made him the most prolific black filmmaker in history. Raised in Metropolis, Illinois, in the late 1800s, Micheaux worked as a shoeshine boy, a Pullman porter, and a homesteader in South Dakota and Nebraska, and later drew on his farming experiences to write novels. He published his books himself, selling them door to door. After a secondhand copy of his 1917 roman a clef The Homesteader reached George Johnson, a manager for the black-owned Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Johnson and his brother approached Micheaux about turning it into a movie.

Micheaux agreed, but when the Johnsons balked at his request to direct he decided to produce the film himself. He raised money by selling stock in the newly formed Micheaux Film and Book Company to South Dakota neighbors and businessmen and began shooting in 1918. The following year he traveled to theaters in black neighborhoods across the midwest, persuading the owners to show the film and selling them rights to his next. He grossed $5,000 and didn't look back.

Between 1919 and 1948 Micheaux produced 43 race movies--silent features and talkies targeted to black audiences and exploring racially charged themes like passing, lynching, intermarriage, and church corruption. Most have long disappeared, but a few endured, including a 1920 feature showing this weekend: Within Our Gates, believed to be the oldest surviving film by a black filmmaker.

The film depicts the travails of Sylvia Landry, an African-American schoolteacher who journeys north to raise money for a southern school for blacks. It includes scenes showing the lynching of Landry's surrogate family and her attempted rape by a white man. On the morning it was scheduled to open in Chicago an interracial committee of clergymen pleaded with Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson and police chief John J. Garrity to ban the film. The city was still reeling from the race riots that had left 37 dead the previous year, and they feared it would spark further violence. But Thompson and Garrity refused, and the movie opened to critical acclaim before a full house at Bronzeville's Vendome Theater on State.

Scholars argue that Within Our Gates is a response to D.W. Griffith's controversial 1915 film Birth of a Nation, and at its debut the Chicago Defender declared it "the biggest protest against Race prejudice and lynching...ever written or filmed." But despite the auspicious opening, poor attendance and distribution doomed the film. "Our people do not care, nor the other race for that matter, for propaganda," Micheaux later griped.

He continued to make movies, including Paul Robeson's successful 1924 feature debut, Body and Soul, but his audience slowly drifted away. Some found him too critical of black institutions; others were enticed by the increasing sophistication of Hollywood, which had begun to integrate and make films with black casts. In 1948 he closed his production company and returned to selling books. He died in 1951 at age 67.

The Silent Film Society of Chicago will screen Within Our Gates at 3 PM on Sunday, February 15, at Lawndale's House of Prayer Church of Christ, 3535 W. Roosevelt. Formerly the Central Park Theatre, the building was Balaban and Katz's first Chicago movie palace. The church's pastor, Reverend Lincoln Scott, and theater historian Joseph R. DuciBella will speak, and organist Jay Warren will accompany the film. Tickets are $8 in advance ($7 for students and seniors) and $10 at the door; for further information call 773-205-7372 or see the Critic's Choice in Section Two.

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