THE BLOG
12/15/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Black Film Trailblazer's Story from 1920s Told in New Film

When he found the story of a little-known but highly successful black filmmaker from the 1920s, music producer Bayer Mack knew he had to correct history. Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood is the result of Mack's work. The film tells an important story and places race relations and black history in a more accurate context.

Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) succeeded in several career fields, and his body of work included seven novels and 44 films. Notably, Micheaux successfully made the transition from silent films to "talkies," a switch that eluded many filmmakers including D.W. Griffith.

How Mack Discovered Micheaux's Story
Bayer Mack's day job is running his music company, Block Starz, which primarily produces hip-hop and R & B music, but he is a tireless reader of history. When he came upon a book, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, by Patrick McGilligan, he was hooked.

"When I read McGilligan's book, I knew I had to make this film," says Mack.

The challenges for Mack included locating film clips from Micheaux's films. Film from the 1920s and '30s has proven to be very fragile, and the more play the films received the greater the disintegration. Because Micheaux's films were very popular with black audiences, film historians had to work hard to locate, assemble and restore remnants.

A few films provided Mack and others with a more complete view of Micheaux's work. Those that were censored had less play. One of them, Within Our Gates, depicted the brutality that many black people faced every day. Both white and black censors closed the film down rapidly. While Micheaux edited it to make it somewhat more acceptable, it had a relatively short life in film houses. As a result, researchers have been able to locate and refer to a mostly intact cut of the film.

Micheaux is also notable for giving a good number of black actors their start. Paul Robeson is perhaps best known. He got his first break working with Micheaux and starred in what is considered by many to be Micheaux's most successful film, Body and Soul (1925).

In making Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood, Mack blends still photography and film clips of the era to tell the story. With a well-selected soundtrack of music from the time period, and excellent narration of the story by actor William Bell, The Czar of Black Hollywood is a moving tribute to a man who deserves to be studied in every film history class that discusses the work of D.W. Griffith.

The film provides viewers with an understanding of an amazingly talented and driven pioneering individual as well as gaining insight into the state of race relations earlier in the 20th century.

Micheaux's Story
Micheaux was a black entrepreneur who earned his first investment money as a Pullman porter and went on to successfully apply for and farm a homestead property in South Dakota. When drought came to the area and he could no longer farm, he read a great deal, eventually deciding to write his own novel. The manuscript was rejected by all white publishers. Undaunted, Micheaux sold shares in his book to raise the money to self-publish, which he did to great success.

That book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, was the basis for Micheaux's first film. The making of the film was a response to the racially negative storyline of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. Micheaux witnessed the power of cinema and resolved to create an honest portrayal of black lives for the movies. The result was a movie, The Homesteader--the first full-length film by an African-American filmmaker.

These films became known as "race films," which has a derogatory sound to it (and likely was meant that way) but the term primarily indicated movies about black people, played by black actors, and shown in the "colored theaters" that came to exist for the express purpose of showing these films. This was an important film genre for the time.

More About the Czar of Black Hollywood
Oxcar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood has been shown at various conferences and film festivals this autumn. The DVD is now available for pre-order (releases December 24). Click here for more information.

To read more about Oscar Micheaux's life, click here.

And if you would like to receive profiles of similar little-known but amazing black Americans, please write to me: kate@americacomesalive.com and put Black Leaders in the subject line. I'll be sending these emails out in February as part of Black History Month.