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How Oscar Micheaux paved the way for generations of Black filmmakers

How Oscar Micheaux paved the way for generations of Black filmmakers
How Oscar Micheaux paved the way for generations of Black filmmakers 02:50

NEW YORK -- During this Black History Month, CBS New York's Nick Caloway pays tribute to one of the first, and most prolific, Black filmmakers in history: Oscar Micheaux.  

Micheaux was a pioneer, paving the way for generations of independent filmmakers to follow in his footsteps. 

He also had deep roots in New York and New Jersey.

Operating on shoestring budgets and his imagination, Micheaux directed and produced more than 40 motion pictures.

"There were other people who were also doing it. But no one did it quite as well or nearly as prolifically as he did," said Dr. Michele Prettyman, an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University.

Micheaux's films explored taboo subjects, like interracial marriage and lynching. They contradicted the negative stereotypes of African Americans featured in mainstream films at the time.

"And often times they were meant to specifically correct things that they thought Hollywood just got wrong," Dr. Prettyman said.

Oscar Micheaux was born in Illinois in 1884.

His first film, "The Homesteader," was the first to feature an all-Black cast.

In 1919, he filmed the critically acclaimed "Within Our Gates" in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Fort Lee was considered the first motion picture town, long before Hollywood.

Nelson Page is executive director of the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, where Micheaux has a star on the Walk of Fame.

"He became a great filmmaker. He became a true pioneer in the industry, not only because he made race pictures, but because he knew what his audiences needed to see, wanted to see," said Page.

Micheaux continued making films in New Jersey and New York for years to come.

He lived in Harlem, and finally in Montclair, New Jersey.

Micheaux died in 1951.

"I think his legacy is that he was the first, and for a good half a century, the best. And I think he carved out a pathway for others to follow," Page said.

And they did follow. A hundred years later, independent filmmakers find inspiration in Micheaux's work. That includes Academy Award-winning film director Spike Lee.

"Those of us who have studied films and those of us who are interested in Black film history and film history now know how impactful he was, that filmmakers who were working in the '60s and the '70s and the '80s could point to him and say 'Oh my gosh, there was a person before us,'" Dr. Prettyman said.

Some of Micheaux's films are victims of time and were lost along the way, including "The Homesteader."

Others, like "Within our Gates," were preserved by the Library of Congress, so they can be watched and studied for at least another hundred years.

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