Oscar Micheaux is widely regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker. According to the Producers Guild of America, he is also "the most prolific black--if not most prolific independent--filmmaker in American cinema." His life can--and perhaps should--serve as something of an inspiration to any aspiring independent filmmakers.
Within Our Gates (1920)
Oscar Micheaux wrote a total of seven novels and produced over forty films. His first feature, The Homesteader (1919), received much critical acclaim and helped to establish him as a writer and filmmaker.Despite his exceptional success, Micheaux was also subject to the hardships of being a black filmmaker in a widely prejudiced time, and making films was far from easy; Micheaux often had to rent equipment by the day, skimp on editing, hire friends and neighbors (and strangers) as actors to save on funding, and shoot footage whenever he could, saving scenes and clips of film for future use. Yet despite these difficulties, he managed to maintain more control over his films than even the more popular white filmmakers; he acted as writer, producer, supervisor, financier, and so forth. According to J. Ronald Green, the struggles to produce his films and the flaws apparent throughout them because of his struggle only served to reinforce his "constant purpose," which was "to show, through art and through business, the capacity of African Americans to overcome American adversity."
The following film, Micheaux's second silent film, Within Our Gates, was produced between 1919 and 1920.Originally rejected and censured by the Chicago Board of Censors (because of graphic rape/incest and lynching scenes they viewed would shock viewers and provoke race riots), the film was also banned by several white managers of both black and white theaters throughout the South. (The lynching scene Micheaux was forced to cut was eventually restored in a later film, The Gunsaulus Mystery.) It is one of the few of Micheaux's films to have been preserved in its entirety.
More info on Micheaux's films, and his role as a filmmaker, can be read in the book Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: from Micheaux to Toni Morrison (Lupak, 2002).