Centering Black Women: The Silent Films of Oscar Micheaux

by Gerald R. Butters, Jr.

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux is one of the most influential figures in African American silent cinema. The most prolific race filmmaker of the silent period, he remained in the industry longer than any other Black director, producing more than forty films during his career. Considering the economic and artistic obstacles African American filmmakers faced, his achievements are indeed remarkable.

Controversial and provocative, Micheaux was the most prolific race filmmaker in cinema history. Significantly, women were at the racial and psychological center of his body of work.

Micheaux used his filmmaking to challenge openly the racial injustices that African Americans faced at the beginning of the twentieth century: lynching, job discrimination, interracial rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation.

From his first film, The Homesteader (1919), and throughout his cinematic career, he addressed sensitive issues that other filmmakers systematically avoided. Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates (1920), for example, was produced in large part as a response and a counter-narrative to D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its scenes of graphic sexual and racial violence by whites diametrically opposed Griffith’s depiction of Black aggression, violence, and vengeance.

Micheaux’s cinematic portrayals of African Americans stood in sharp contrast to Hollywood’s stereotypical and degrading depictions. Of particular interest are Micheaux’s women, whom he made central to his films. Through characters such as Sylvia Landry and Eve Mason, he exposed the inequities that Blacks suffered, the threats of violence that they endured, and the hope for racial uplift to which they aspired.


The Homesteader (1919)


Within Our Gates (1920)



Body and Soul (1925)



About the Presenter

  • Gerald R. Butters, Jr.

    Gerald R. Butters, Jr.

    Gerald R. Butters, Jr. is a Professor of History at Aurora University. He also teaches in the graduate Liberal Studies program at Northwestern University. A Fulbright scholar, Dr. Butters has published four award-winning books including Beyond Blaxploitation (2016), From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop (2015), Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966 (2007), and Black Manhood on the Silent Screen (2002). His research and publication focuses on the intersection of race and gender in American popular culture. His forthcoming book is on Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Kevin Willmott. He has edited special issues of the Journal of Popular Culture and Popular Culture Studies. Butters’ essays have appeared in American Historical Review, Flow, Choice, Reviews in American History, Cercles, The Journal for Multimedia History, Film and History and Film/Literature Quarterly. Butters has lectured internationally, including an address to the European Commission in Luxembourg in 2009.


Discussion Questions
  • Some film scholars have criticized Micheaux for the unrealistic construction of his characters, female as well as male, arguing that they are not typical of the Black society of his time. Others have suggested that Micheaux’s depictions of the Black underclass (gamblers, alcoholics, hustlers, jackleg preachers) are indeed realistic, although at times too grim and unflattering. How valid are such charges? What was Micheaux trying to achieve in these various depictions, and how successful was he?

  • A number of contemporary filmmakers, Spike Lee and John Singleton among them, have acknowledged a debt to Oscar Micheaux. Do you see any correspondences between Micheaux’s women and the female protagonists in current Black films?

  • Micheaux, who addressed topical and timely subjects such as educational inequity, discrimination, lynching, and other forms of violence against Blacks, is considered by some to be the originator of the Black protest film. Is this an accurate assessment? Are there reverberations of his work that you see in contemporary films?

Suggestions for Further Reading
  • Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

  • Bowser, Pearl, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

  • Butters, Gerald R., Jr. Black Manhood on the Silver Screen. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002.

  • Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

  • —–. With a Crooked Stick—The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

  • McGilligan, Patrick. Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

  • Taylor, Betti VanEpps. Oscar Micheaux, A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker. Rapid City, SD: Dakota West Books, 1999.

Suggestions for Further Viewing