by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
Oscar Micheaux is a name that every Black person who likes cinema, television and webisodes should know because he is one of the earliest Black filmmakers in the United States. His work even pre-dates the Harlem Renaissance.
At this year’s San Francisco Black Film Festival, locally based filmmaker Jamie Walker will be presenting her film, “The Young Oscar Micheaux.” Check out this Q&A, where she gives a little history about herself and a little bit about this brilliant ancestor.
M.O.I. JR: How did you become a filmmaker? When did you take it from a hobby to an occupation?
Jamie Walker: I’ve always been interested in cinema from as early as I can remember. I found my journey to filmmaking through literature and plays. When I was younger, I always had a fascination for dialogue and, more specifically, became enamored with how words – both spoken and written – could be used to move people and inspire change.
In my youth, I remember directing my own skits for school and also for family functions. In high school, I also began experimenting with videography and directing my own short films. I think that perhaps what inspired my work most as a writer and a director is discovering a poetry anthology edited by Dudley Randall on my mother’s bookshelf called “The Black Poets.” It was there that I discovered the poems of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Mari Evans, Maya Angelou and Sonia Sanchez, to name a few.
Reading those poems, including the literature of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, inspired me to write and publish my own poems in local papers and magazines around the Bay Area. I also started writing novels as a young person and really enjoyed it. Screenwriting came much easier for me than novel writing, and I began to pursue it more deeply.
After going to San Francisco State University and studying in both the Black Studies Department and Theater Department, I started freelancing for Black newspapers and magazines while working in front of and behind the scenes on independent film projects. At a UC Berkeley Upward Bound Program, where I studied with playwright PJ Gibson, and San Francisco State’s Theater Arts Department, where I studied with Camille Howard and Rhonnie Washington, I was blessed to be given the opportunity to write my own plays, direct them and share them with my peers.
I think all of these influences contributed to my love for screenwriting and directing. I began screenwriting and directing to help recode the images of African American males and females on screen. I wanted to create positive images of Blackness on screen. I also wanted to highlight the work of African Americans who have made a difference in our world.
M.O.I. JR: How was this plan for the Oscar Micheaux film conceived? Why did you decide to do a film on him?
Jamie Walker: In the fall of 2009, I started researching about independent Black filmmakers – specifically, during the Harlem Renaissance Movement. At Howard University, where I finished my doctorate in African American Literature and later taught in the Afro Studies Department, I learned about Harlem Renaissance poets and writers.
I was able to teach two social movements in African American history that I love: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance Movement to the Present was a popular course I taught that always maxed out with students.
In my quest to find independent Black filmmakers during the time period to show to my class, I discovered Oscar Micheaux’s 1919 silent film, “Within Our Gates,” which was, in many ways, a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915). I was amazed watching Oscar’s silent film, not only because it was produced in advance of the Harlem Renaissance Movement – further proving that he was way ahead of his time – but also for its complex themes, innovative directing scenes and cinematic techniques.
It was after seeing that film that I began to do much more research on Micheaux. I wanted to find everything I could on him and so read the work of other Micheaux scholars like Pearl Bowser and Patrick McGilligan. It was really after trying to locate every film he had ever produced, including his autobiographies, that I decided to add his work to my course curriculum at Santa Clara University.
Luckily, my chair, James Lai, in the Ethnic Studies Department, was open to the idea of my teaching a course called Independent African American Filmmakers. I’ve been teaching that blended course face-to-face and online ever since.
Oscar Micheaux is legendary in the independent film world for many reasons. He is considered to be the first Black filmmaker to produce a narrative feature length film (over 60 minutes). He’s also considered to be the first to successfully transition to talkies at a time when many independents were being forced out the business because they could not afford the technology or because studios began buying up local theaters in the South.
Micheaux is also one of the first Black filmmakers to openly discuss through his films the problems of passing and colorism, the hypocrisy of the Black bourgeoisie, and other taboo subjects like lynching, rape and interracial dating.
I was amazed after teaching a course about him and later winning the Sundance Film Festival pitching contest that no biopic had ever been done about his life; namely, how he was raised by former slaves in Illinois and later migrated to South Dakota, where he lived on a homestead and was able to support both his novel writing and filmmaking career by going door to door to neighbors and theater owners in the south encouraging them to invest in his book and film company.
Oscar was a very savvy businessman and got many people to invest in his stock. He self-published his first autobiography called “The Homesteader” in 1918 before turning it into a feature length film. He later migrated to Chicago, where he worked several odd jobs as a shoeshine man and Pullman porter before going on to produce more than 40 feature films and over seven novels.
Oscar was a controversial figure during his time period. He was often protested by his own people for fear of his films inciting more racial tension or because, in his early films about the problems of passing, he leaned toward using fair or light-skinned actresses in his films. In his quest to discuss the problems of passing, he suffered from many of the same problems he was trying to advocate against in his films.
Micheaux was controversial because he was censored constantly by the Chicago Censorship Board and faced scrutiny in his later years for publicly disclosing through countless novels and films his intense love for a Scottish girl – even though he eventually married two Black women. Despite his personal battles and complex nature, his work is worthy of studying because several of his themes still have relevance today.
Also, studying Micheaux helps all of us to understand the grave injustices we suffered as a people and the types of obstacles we had to overcome during that time period.
The biopic on Oscar Micheaux, which is co-produced by Monica Cooper and Preston L. Holmes (“Malcolm X,” 1992), is about how Micheaux journeys from the bitter racist South up north to Chicago and, later, Harlem, to begin producing “race movies” (films by Blacks for the benefits of Blacks and other audiences) to help uplift his people.
M.O.I. JR: What was your creative process like?
Jamie Walker: My creative process is long. Reading inspires my writing. If I don’t read or study, I’m not inspired to write.
Reading about other African Americans in Chicago during the same period as Micheaux, like Ida B. Wells, as well as about all of the Negro societies that were formed during that time period, also helped. Devouring all of the newspaper articles on Micheaux in The Chicago Defender helped tremendously.
Of course, also traveling to Chicago myself to do some research on him in Bronzeville – home to Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and several others – was truly fascinating. Immersing myself in Chicago’s culture and soaking up the architecture and landscape really gave life and color to the screenplay.
Perhaps what most helped my creative process was meeting Oscar Micheaux’s descendants right after the Sundance Film Festival and being welcomed in their home to study old photographs and to hear oral histories about the Micheaux family. I will remain forever grateful to the Micheaux family for assisting with research and personal stories about his life and character.
M.O.I. JR: What do you think Oscar Micheaux’s greatest contribution to Black cinema in the United States was?
Jamie Walker: I think his greatest contribution was very similar to many independent Black filmmakers during the LA Rebellion period, and that was helping to recode and reframe our own images in cinema. He offered new ways to read Black femininity and masculinity on screen, which did not revolve around gross stereotypes such as the mammy, matriarch, sapphire, Uncle Tom or brute figures.
Oscar’s leading Black men and women were upstanding citizens who were conscious about their legacy of struggle and culture of resistance. His characters were always committed to “giving back” and uplifting the race.
While Micheaux wasn’t afraid to show “ordinary people” in his films, he did often make a mockery of the Black middle class and how ignorant some could be, especially when it came to the sickness of colorism. Ironically, it is purported that he suffered from colorism himself.
Many of his films – even those that dealt with the sickness of colorism – challenged us to return to the source, to love the skin that we are in, to know our past and not be ashamed about it. Micheaux believed that becoming “self-taught” and knowing the truth about our past could help to empower us. To him, this was one of the first steps toward becoming “free” in the 20th century.
I think also that by him casting the African American man and woman in a positive light in his films, he helped many of us to imagine our beautiful future. While some of his films were controversial – for many reasons – I believe that he, like many artists, evolved and his business model is still something all of us can refer and aspire to.
M.O.I. JR: Why do you think he is still rather unknown?
Jamie Walker: To tell you the truth, I was pretty upset researching Oscar Micheaux in libraries, online, and in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Library, only to discover that during the early years that he produced his films, he was completely omitted from major film magazines in Chicago, where he produced, like Moving Picture World.
Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith got all of the fame during this time period. And it’s not surprising why: They were white and they were male. Black independents got into the film game because they were marginalized. They got into the film industry because no one was writing and telling their stories – as they lived them.
If it weren’t for African American film critics during that time period, chronicling his work in the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News or even The Crisis, we may never have known about his legacy. Much like Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston, I think it’s up to us as writers and filmmakers to re-discover and resurrect our own African American icons from the margins or from obscurity. It’s up to us to see to it that our stories are not forgotten.
People are slowly beginning to rediscover Micheaux’s work, largely because his older films are being found and made accessible to the world through social media and venues like YouTube. Other Micheaux scholars and even film festivals, which ran in Oakland, California, ensured that his work was never forgotten.
Of course, as literature began to be canonized, the work of people of color was omitted from those anthologies. But we’ve done some good work over the years to ensure that our critics and writers discuss his work.
M.O.I. JR: How did it feel to be selected to be in the SF Black Film Fest?
Jamie Walker: I was very honored. As an Oakland resident who was born and raised in the East Bay, I’ve been following the San Francisco Black Film Festival for several years now. And I’ve watched it grow.
I’m so honored to be able to show the short film – produced with no budget – to local Bay Area actors who were a part of the film. We shot the film in the Oakland hills in an attempt to hear how the screenplay sounded. I wanted to find out what was working and not working. As we shot some scenes, using costumes I found on EBay or from my mother’s own household, I discovered I could make a short about it to gain more awareness about the biopic on his life.
M.O.I. JR: Have you been selected to be in any film festivals besides the upcoming SF Black Film Fest?
Jamie Walker: I haven’t really sent the short film out to too many film festivals yet because I still want to have it professionally edited and cut. Also, I haven’t sent it out much because it was a test shot to hear how the screenplay sounded.
Our short film, “The Young Oscar Micheaux,” has, however, had its premiere at Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the Texas Black Film Featival, San Diego Black Film Featival and Deltas of North Carolina Film Festival. I hope to send it to other fests.
M.O.I. JR: When is your film screening with the SF Black Film Fest?
Jamie Walker: We screen on Sunday, June 15, 3:30-4:45 p.m. at Yoshi’s San Francisco. The room is called the Jazz Heritage Center and it’s located at 1320 Fillmore St.
Please come out and see us! I will be in attendance with the cast to discuss the biopic. For tickets, visit www.sfbff.org.
M.O.I. JR: Where can people keep up with you online?
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.