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African-American Film Pioneers

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To learn more about Oscar Micheaux, see the profile and related materials at http://shorock.com/micheaux.

Cinema pioneer Oscar Micheaux dealt freely and frankly with such themes between the late 'teens and the late 1940s, releasing over 30 films, most intended exclusively for African-American audiences. Micheaux—originally a novelist, but eventually a screenwriter, director, and producer—headed up one of the most successful African-American studios of the day. His operation produced films that drew attention, debate, and (most important of all) substantial audiences in African-American communities from the silent era to the postwar period. Among his productions were the following:

  • The Homesteader  This 1919 silent feature, based on Micheaux's novel of the same name, was based largely on the author's own experiences as a settler on a patch of South Dakota land to which he had obtained a claim in the early 1900s. Micheaux subsidized the film by securing investments from the region's farmers.
  • Within Our Gates  Another silent re-lease from 1919, this film told the story of a sharecropper falsely accused of killing a white man. Set firmly within the context of melodrama, Within Our Gates pushed every social button it could, and openly challenged prevailing notions of white supremacy.
  • Body and Soul  The great actor and singer Paul Robeson made his screen debut in this 1925 exploration of religious hypocrisy. Robeson played both a manipulative preacher and his well-intentioned brother.

Micheaux's films made a point of placing African-Americans in positions of influence, authority, and accountability, thus ensuring that a positive message and inspiring role models would reach the African-American community.

With the entrance of the big studios into the market in the late 1920s and early 1930s, many African-American studios fell by the wayside. Micheaux managed to keep his operation up and running until the late 1940s. When he died in 1951, his passing was barely noted; even today, his contributions to the medium and his steadfast refusal to accept the limiting stereotypes of the day are not widely celebrated, which is a shame.

Spencer Williams

Best known for his portrayal of Andy in the controversial network television version of the stereotype-riddled radio comedy Amos `n' Andy, Williams should be better noted for a remarkable career as an actor, producer, director, composer, and screenwriter in African-American films. For a long period before he won his starring role in the 1951 television show, Williams was the creative force behind dozens of movies popular with-in the African-American community, including Tenderfeet (1928), Framing of the Shrew (1929), Harlem on the Prairie (1938), and Juke Joint (1947).

When network television beckoned, Williams's big break appeared to have come at last. The Amos `n' Andy broadcasts proved divisive, however, and the coarse, dialect-driven comedy—which ultimately drew the condemnation of the NAACP—served as a kind of shorthand for his entire career. The broad and demeaning images of a long-cancelled television show, however, should not overshadow Williams's work as an entrepreneur and filmmaker, which was impressive.

Williams was a multitalented man whose energy and unfailing good humor were, by all accounts, extra-ordinary. He was, like Micheaux, a pioneering success in a medium that was built to exclude his participation in it, and for that he deserves to be remembered.

Spencer Williams died in Los Angeles, California, in 1969.

Other Early African-American Film Pioneers

On the March

To learn more about pioneering African-American filmmaker Spencer Williams, see the Concordia Sentinel profile at www.geocities.com/Hollywood/2587/ConcordiaSentinel.htm.

Other pioneering African-Americans in the cinema included …

  • The brothers Noble and George Johnson, who, in 1916, formed the first African-American-owned film production company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.
  • Jeni LeGon, the first African-American woman to win an extended contract from a major Hollywood studio. She worked for MGM in the thirties, and, though underutilized, danced up a storm as “Hollywood's Chocolate Princess” in a number of mainstream releases.
  • Ethel Waters, an accomplished performer (and influential early jazz singer) who crafted a successful, long-lasting career. Her early accomplishments featured screen appearances in such releases as On With the Show (1929) and Check and Double Check (1930). Her later success as a singer and actress has led many to overlook her early work in the talkies.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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