This Sunday night many Americans will view the televised Academy Awards ceremony from Hollywood USA. Though Washington DC is our nation’s capital, in the eyes of the world we are defined by Hollywood. And as you have read in these archives pieces, Hollywood is a state of mind that was actually born here on the streets of Fort Lee in the early 1900s when Fort Lee served as the first American film town.
In honor of the upcoming Academy Awards, and in light of this being Black History Month, it is time once again to blow off the proverbial dust from our archive and delve into the story of a film pioneer who spent much of his life from 1920 up until his last film in 1948 on the streets and in the studios of Fort Lee.
Many filmmakers preceded Oscar Micheaux to Fort Lee, including D.W. Griffith, who from 1908 through 1912 shot many of his Biograph short films here on the very streets of Fort Lee. In 1911 on Hammett’s Hill in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, Griffith shot one of his most elaborate shorts titled The Battle. This was a Civil War film that was a precursor to his classic yet controversial 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation (shot in California).
Even though Griffith left Fort Lee, there was still major studio production through the end of World War I. It was after the war that the studio exodus to Hollywood accelerated, and by the 1920s, film production in Fort Lee was a shadow of its former self.
This brings us to Oscar Micheaux. Born in 1884 in Illinois, Micheaux would become a South Dakota homesteader, an author, filmmaker and producer. His experiences as a homesteader in a predominantly white rural community served as the basis for his first novels and films.
Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company and its first project was to turn his novel, The Homesteader, into a film in 1919. This film made Micheaux a name in early cinema but because of his race and the prevalent racism of the day, Micheaux was not to be a filmmaker in Hollywood. For greener pastures he went east not west.
Thus, Micheaux came to Fort Lee in 1920. On the streets of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, the same streets where Griffith, for example, shot such films as The New York Hat (1912) and The Battle (1911), now an African-American film director and producer shot his own films.
The first of these films is what I believe to be Micheaux’s greatest work, Symbol of the Unconquered (1920). This film is the flip side of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In Griffith’s film he glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, having been raised in the south and having family who fought for the Confederacy. Griffith showed this predilection for the Confederacy in his 1911 Fort Lee-shot film The Battle.
So here, on the very streets where Griffith shot The Battle, an African-American filmmaker shot his film with his take on the KKK. That truly is amazing history to have happened on the streets of Fort Lee. Though Fort Lee saw no real Civil War battles, in a sense we did in the early 20th century and the weapons of choice were fired not by Generals but by movie directors, and the ammunition was not bullets, but film.
Micheaux’s Symbol of the Unconquered also used the exterior of the Champion Studio on Fifth Street in Fort Lee (Coytesville) and that studio building still stands today as the oldest surviving movie studio in the United States.
Symbol of the Unconquered is the best surviving film of Micheaux and it has been restored though portions of it still remain lost including a key scene of Blacks repelling a KKK raid.
Micheaux continued to shoot films on and off in Fort Lee. One of particular note is the first all talking African-American musical and talkie The Exile (1931) shot in Fort Lee at the Metropolitan Studio, the current location of Constitution Park on Linwood Avenue. The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated a historic marker on the site of the studio, which can be viewed in the park today.
Noted African-American film historian Pearl Bowser, in the book Writing Himself into History, Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences says of Micheaux:
Micheaux strove with a sense of daring, optimism, and resolve, in a field filled with many roadblocks. He pursued areas and opportunities that were assumed closed to Negroes, and he was determined to succeed.
Micheaux returned once again to his cinematic home of Fort Lee to shoot his final film The Betrayal (1948). He died in 1951 and for many decades both he and his films were left forgotten, much like the remaining studio structures of Fort Lee.
However, since the 1990s Micheaux’s career as a film pioneer has been the topic of books and commentaries, as well as film festivals. For several years the Fort Lee Film Commission invited film historian Pearl Bowser into Fort Lee High School for school assemblies on the life of Micheaux for Black History Month.
We here at the Fort Lee Film Commission urge the Fort Lee Board of Education and the Fort Lee School Superintendent to revisit their curriculum and include the story of Oscar Micheaux in programs of education geared to all Fort Lee students. What an opportunity exists to teach about a pioneer African-American filmmaker who spent most of his career shooting his films not in Hollywood, but right here in the birthplace of the American film industry--Fort Lee, NJ.
On the eve of the Academy Award ceremony, we hope someday to see Micheaux presented posthumously with an Oscar for his cinematic life that broke down racial barriers and whose films today teach us about an early 20th century America where a lone director used film to battle discrimination.