AFI Catalog Spotlight: Alice B. Russell
Modern scholars have recently begun to study the profound yet generally unhistoricized impact that women of color made to the establishment of the film industry, including pioneering African American women who were making films in the silent era, including Eslanda Robeson, Eloyce King Patrick Gist, Zora Neale Hurston, Tressie Souders, Maria P. Williams – and Alice B. Russell.
Russell, an American actress, collaborated with her husband, director Oscar Michaeux, behind the camera on many of his productions to depict an authentic and empowering representation of Black culture and was credited as producer on six of the films under the name Burton Russell or A. Burton Russell.
Little is known about Russell, as noted in her short biography in the Women Film Pioneers Project, which stated that the first documentation of her occupation was listed on her 1926 marriage license to Oscar Micheaux as “concert soloist.” One year later, she starred in Micheaux’s THE BROKEN VIOLIN (1927) and went on to act in at least seven additional features including Micheaux’s 1938 remake of his anti-racist opus BIRTHRIGHT, which credited Russell as a presenter, and THE BETRAYAL (1948), which was the first all-black film to have a Broadway premier. THE BETRAYAL also marked Micheaux’s final film before his death in 1951, and Russell’s final feature as an actress.
The year of BIRTHRIGHT’s release, Russell indicated in a letter to her sister that she had a supportive role in the production of her husband’s pictures but downplayed her contributions by explaining that Micheaux “took me along to help him,” as reported in the Women Film Pioneers Project. Several years earlier, a 1930 New York Census record for “Alice Micheaux” listed her occupation as “Helper—Motion Pictures” suggesting that her role in her husband’s productions transcended her acting duties and extended to her presenter credits. There is still much to be discovered about Russell’s life and her specific impact on Micheaux films, but her efforts were nothing short of indispensable to the creation of American cinema, and the representation of Black society during her time.
Watch a clip from Alice B. Russell’s one extant film that was preserved by the Library of Congress: THE DARKTOWN REVUE (1931)