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Posts Tagged ‘Within Our Gates’

“We’re a great country. We’ve got great stories. And for the most part, the great stories of people of color have not been told.”
Spike Lee
(at the NYC Premier of Red Tails)

“Americans trust black people when we sing, dance or tell jokes. It’s when we stop laughing that people get itchy.”
Author Charles Fuller (A Soldier’s Story)

As a response of the release of The Birth of a Nation (1915) plans were set in place by black leaders to give a response to stereotypes portrayed in D.W. Griffith’s widely praised film. Plans to film Booker T. Washington’s book Up from Slavery fell apart, the start of World War I didn’t help with film funding, but eventually The Birth of a Race did get produced and was released in 1918. According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance the film “was considered a critical and popular failure, and it was a financial fiasco.”

But the one thing it did do was inspire Oscar Micheaux to become the first Africa-American to write and direct a feature film—The Homesteader in 1919.  (On IMDB, Jerry Mills is also listed a co-director.) He would go on to make 41 films over the next 29 years. But his direct response to The Birth of a Nation was the film Within Our Gates (1920).

Now here’s the great thing about technology—there was no known copy of Within Out Gates until 1990 when one was found in Paris. Now the whole version pf the film is available for free on You Tube.

While it’s generally accepted that Micheaux is the first African-American to make a feature film, back in 1910 William D. Foster of Chicago founded the Foster Photoplay Company—the first independent African-American film company. He was a sports writer from Chicago and his first film was The Railroad Porter, a short film made in 1912 and starred William D. Foster.

And back when Jacksonville, Florida was known as “winter film capital of the world,” writer/director Richard Norman (also an African-American) made several features in the 1920s. Long before Tyler Perry opened his film studio in Atlanta, Norman owned the Norman Studios. A studio which is still around today as a museum.  And before Red Tails (currently in theaters as I write this) Norman was the producer, director and writer on The Flying Ace (1926)—about a World War I pilot— with an “ALL COLORED CAST” as one old advertisement promised.

That movie is part of the Library of Congress. Here’s the trailer for The Flying Aces (with a little updated music):

Related posts:
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry

Scott W. Smith

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“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,”
Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951)

On Tuesday, the United States Postal Service released a stamp of producer, director, screenwriter Oscar Micheaux. This is significant for several reasons. First it shows that long before Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and before even Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, there was Micheaux. Though probably less known than those other filmmakers, according to The Miami Herald, “Micheaux, who died in 1951, was the first African American to produce a feature-length film – The Homesteader, in 1920 — and a sound feature-length film – The Exile — in 1931.”

In all he is said to have made 40 films, though only all or part of 15 survive.

The USPS press release says, “Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.”

On Wednesday, Film Life’s 14th Annual American Black Film Festival began (June 23-26, 2010) in Miami. (I’m not sure if honoring Oscar Micheaux is on the list this year, but if you’re in that area Spike Lee will be doing a Master Class on The Art of Filmmaking Saturday, June 26 at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.)

The second thing about Micheaux of significance to this Screenwriting from Iowa blog is that I like to point out writers and filmmakers who come from outside Los Angeles and Micheaux was born in 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, grew up in Great Bend, Kansas and had a farm in South Dakota. It was in South Dakota when he began writing short stories. According to IMDB, “Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door.”

In case you missed that, Micheaux lived in Iowa for spell. Wrote books and sold them himself.  (My new hero.) Micheaux moved to Chicago with hopes of making one of his novels a book. Again IMDB, fills in what happened;”Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center.” (I swear, I couldn’t make all this stuff up if I tried.)

His first feature, The Homesteader, was made in 1919. IMDB states, “His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan.” These films were known as “Race Films” or “Race Movies” intended for black audiences. Wikipedia says, “During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.”  It would not be until the 50s and the modern civil rights movement when Race Films were faded out.

And the third significance to Micheaux’s stamp is the artwork was created right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa by artist Gary Kelley. The same Gary Kelley I’ve mentioned many times on this blog and who I did a multi-media project with earlier this year (Kelley’s Blues).

Anyway to honor Oscar Micheaux, Gary Kelley, and my high school creative writing teacher Annye Refoe (who just happens to be black) I am going to give away one new copy of Seattle writer/teacher Brian McDonald’s screenwriting book Invisible Ink; A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate. I own way too many books on screenwriting than I’d like to admit, but I believe that Invisible Ink is the first and only screenwriting book I own written by an African-American. Perhaps not something that needs mentioning, but in the context of Micheaux, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Anyway, I’ll send the book via the USPS with Micheaux/Kelley stamps. But here’s how I’ll pick one winner. In the spirit of Micheaux, I am working on publishing parts of this blog as a book (or two or three) and what I need are some blurbs from people who can say two or three positive sentences about me and/or Screenwriting from Iowa. (Could be longer, but doesn’t need to be.)  Put them in the comment section or email to me at info@scottwsmith.com. I’ll print the names and put them in a hat and choose a winner on next Friday (July 2, 2010).

Related Posts:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)

Scott W. Smith

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