BIRTHRIGHT (1924) – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute


BIRTHRIGHT (1924) – AFI Catalog Spotlight

Black and white image of American film director Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) in a suit and hat standing next to a film camera -Photo Credit - Kino LorberIn celebration of Black History Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on pioneer African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and his 10th directorial effort, BIRTHRIGHT (1924), which was released 100 years ago last month and was remade by Micheaux in 1938 as a talkie. While the 1924 film is believed to be lost, the surviving reels of the1938 version are safeguarded for preservation and posterity in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress. Adapted by the filmmaker himself from T. S. Stribling’s serialized novel of the same name about an African American Harvard graduate who returns to his Southern hometown to teach Black youths and uplift them from subjugation, BIRTHRIGHT was an early, brutal critique of segregation and Jim Crow laws which received criticism for its graphic depiction of institutionalized racism. In response, Micheaux published a declaration of his intensions as a filmmaker, reflecting the ideals of his lead character: “I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life to view the colored heart at close range…It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.”

A black and white portrait of Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) - American Film DirectorBorn in 1884 to a couple who were formerly enslaved, Micheaux was one of 11 siblings who attended segregated schools in Illinois. Working as a Pullman railroad car porter, Micheaux made enough money to buy a farm in South Dakota, but he lost his land in bankruptcy. However, the experience transformed him into a storyteller, and he began his career by writing novels about homesteading as a Black man. Micheaux evolved from a novelist to a filmmaker when his writing was recognized by African American film producer George P. Johnson, who made an unsuccessful attempt at optioning Micheaux’s work, and when D.W. Griffith released THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), an egregious advocate of white supremacy. In opposition to the film, and in an effort to make movies, himself, Micheaux started his own production company and adapted his bestselling novel, “The Homesteader,” for the screen in 1919, followed by what is believed to be his direct response to THE BIRTH OF A NATION, the extant classic WITHIN OUR GATES (1920). (Micheaux claimed the picture reflected the U.S.’s societal instability after World War I.) He went on to write, produce and direct over 35 feature films. Thirty-five years after his death, Micheaux was honored with a posthumous 1986 Golden Jubilee Special Award from the Directors Guild of America, along with Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.

Filming for BIRTHRIGHT took place in June 1923 in Fort Lee, NJ, a popular location for production at the time. As noted by historian Barbara Tepa Lupack, Micheaux worked with extremely limited budgets, using empty studios with small-scale sets and rental equipment, along with casts and crews who were willing to work for little pay. Retakes and editing were accordingly low priorities, since Micheaux was unable to finance additional undertakings, and he typically oversaw the entire production himself, juggling multiple rolls he learned from experience, including writer, director, producer, distributor and publicist. Lupack points to J. Ronald Green’s assessment that “in a vital way, the very flaws in Micheaux’s medium became part of his message,” and that his make-shift style and low production values “reflect, and also represent, adversity”— the same adversity Black Americans were challenged to overcome by creating art and by starting businesses to infuse the community with culture and capitol.

Lobby card for the film BIRTHRIGHT (1938)BIRTHRIGHT, both the 1924 and 1938 versions, are examples of Micheaux’s effort to portray a Black perspective of Hollywood genres and tropes, and to establish a new canon despite provoking controversy. Although the lost 1924 release is not available to modern viewers for critical assessment, a contemporary review in Billboard stated that BIRTHRIGHT “was apparently not intended for colored audiences alone. Its brutal frankness hurts, and some of the titles put a sting into the evening’s entertainment.” Micheaux’s cinematic attempts at testing his audience’s perceptions of social norms made BIRTHRIGHT one of his most “politically indicting films,” as stated by Green. It prompted viewers to question America’s racist notions of birthright that denied Black citizens equal liberty. Micheaux was unafraid of the “sting” his work in BIRTHRIGHT and other films produced; rather, he bravely embraced the opportunity to be provocative in protest of racial injustice. Micheaux fought censorship nearly every time he released a picture but was willing to compromise in order to survive as a Black filmmaker while remaining true to his artistic vision, as evident in his decision to remake some of his most contentious movies, including BIRTHRIGHT.

Black and white image of American film director Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) - Image courtesy John A. Ravage Fair useOscar Micheaux is widely recognized as the first Black filmmaker in America, but he was preceded by William Foster, who established his own studio, the Foster Photoplay Company, and made several shorts including THE RAILROAD PORTER (1912). However, Foster’s work to create a market for Black productions and to represent African Americans with dignity was forestalled by neglect from the major booking and distribution companies, which refused to carry product from independent Black filmmakers. Foster and other early African American producers, including Emmett J. Scott, brothers Noble and George P. Johnson with their Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and others, were unable to survive the implicit racism of the industry as well as the additional costs of emerging sound technologies. As other “race” filmmakers folded, Micheaux maintained his career over several decades, releasing his pictures domestically and internationally, and transitioning seamlessly to talkies. Micheaux’s early independent, DIY approach to cinema reflected his commitment to the artform as a channel for political protest – both in its style and its content – and paved the way for future Black provocateurs such as Julie Dash, Ava Duvernay and Spike Lee. Truly a self-made man, Micheaux remained the most successful African American filmmaker in the U.S. until his death in 1951, and in the past 20 years has become the subject of numerous books, as well as the inspiration for eponymous awards and the Oscar Micheaux Film Festival in Los Angeles which honors diversity and representation in today’s cinema. A century after its release, Micheaux’s BIRTHRIGHT exemplifies his vital contributions to film history and his enduring influence on future filmmakers.

Watch the existing footage of Oscar Micheaux’s 1938 version of BIRTHRIGHT:

Watch Oscar Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES:


“Birthright,” American Film Institute Catalog, accessed January 5, 2024,

“Birthright,” American Film Institute Catalog, accessed January 5, 2024,

Bowser, P., Gaines, J. and Musser, C., eds. Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Green, J. Ronald. With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Haygood, W. Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

Lupak, B. Tepa. Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: From Micheaux to Toni Morrison. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2002.

McGilligan, P. Oscar Micheaux, The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Sampson, H. T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977.

Comments (1)

Maisha Yearwood '98

YES, Black people, YES!!!!!!

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