As we all know, February marks Black History Month. But this year, February also marks something else: The 100th anniversary of the birth of black cinema. Black cinema was making black history before Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. And this week, black cinema is making history once again with the nomination of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire for Best Picture. It’s the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a film directed by a black director is nominated for the top award. Director Lee Daniels is following in the footsteps of those who came before him — namely, William D. Foster and Oscar Micheaux.
Oscar Micheaux is often lauded as the father of black filmmakers. But William D. Foster began producing films nearly a decade earlier than Micheaux’s first effort. In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn’t a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.
This was three years before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exists today. Consider the Reconstruction scene, where barefoot black legislators eat fried chicken, swill whiskey, lust after white women and pass a law that all legislators must wear shoes. Insert a cantankerous mammy, tragic mulatto, murderous buck, black rapists and a lynching, and you’ve got what is shamefully considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.
In response to The Birth of a Nation, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a Universal Pictures contract actor), founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, producing middle-class melodramas like The Realization of a Negro‘s Ambition (1916) and the Trooper of Troop K (1917) and their most well-known film, The Birth of a Race (1918). The Johnson brothers’ movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, concepts foreign to most mainstream films at that time.
Oscar Micheaux soon followed suit with The Homesteader (1919), becoming one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time. He directed over 40 films, most notably Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925), which featured film star Paul Robeson, and God‘s Step Children (1938). Micheaux’s films explored the issues of the day: passing, lynching, religion and criminal behavior. They were independently produced until he filed bankruptcy in 1928, reorganizing with white investors as the Micheaux Film Company. Some argue that this changed the tone and direction of his films.