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How Oscar Micheaux Challenged the Racism of Early Hollywood

The black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was one of the first to make films for a black audience, a rebuke to racist movies like "The Birth of a Nation."

“The most dangerous thing about Birth of a Nation was its huge financial success,” filmmaker Reginald Hudlin says in Birth of a Movement, the PBS documentary about the Trotter’s campaign. “Because at the end of the day, Hollywood works on precedent. Whether people know better or not, they’re going to go back to tropes that they feel are associated with success. You have Birth of a Nation, which is very successful, and you go, okay, America loves racism. They will pay money to see racism on screen.”

Race films were an attempt to balance this bigotry. Grupenhoff writes that civil rights leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois came to advocate “not for blacks to condemn [The Birth of a Nation’s] shortcomings, but rather to create a film aesthetic of their own.” If the major studios weren’t going to take their concerns seriously, they would make the movies they wanted to see themselves. “White discrimination was, paradoxically, one of the causes for the rise of independent black filmmaking,” Grupenhoff writes.

Micheaux was one of the most prolific filmmakers to respond to this call. He wrote, directed, and produced approximately 40 features over the course of three decades. His first film, made with the black production company Lincoln Motion Picture Company, was an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel The Homesteader. But his second film, Within Our Gates, engaged with The Birth of a Nation quite directly. This is most noticeable in an extended flashback sequence, which sees the movie’s heroine, a black schoolteacher named Sylvia, running from an angry white mob. They are mistakenly convinced her adoptive father Jasper Landry, a poor black man, killed his rich white landlord. In retribution, they lynch both Landry and his wife, and nearly murder their young son Emil. (He escapes, with a bullet wound.) While all this is happening, the landlord’s brother finds Sylvia and attempts to rape her… before realizing she is his biracial daughter.

This sequence offers a more accurate version of American history, casting innocent black families as the victims of senseless violence from racist mobs and black women as the targets of sexual assault (rather than suggesting that white damsels were the real victims of Reconstruction). As the film scholar Anna Siomopoulos notes, Micheaux even “counters The Birth of a Nation in the politics of its aesthetics,” by using editing techniques parallel to those that Griffith employed in his film, offering much more than “a very simple opposition between white virtue and black villainy.”