God’s Step Children (1938)

Writer-director-producer Oscar Micheaux’s technical skills were equal to those of another triple-threat filmmaker, Edward D. Wood, Jr. But his films were popular with black audiences because, like his novels, they addressed racial issues — often color divisions within the black community — directly. In God’s Step Children, the characters are inconsistent and their motivations are vague, but the presentation of the racial issues by itself was enough to resonate powerfully with its intended audience.

The plot is that a light-skinned girl raised by a kindly black foster mother is taunted and rejected by her black schoolmates and her foster brother, and as a result she becomes a bratty child. Because of her misbehavior, she is sent to be raised in a convent for several years. When she finally returns home after twelve years in the convent, she falls in love with her foster brother, who has become an upright man who has rejected an offer to enter profitable city rackets to become an honest farmer. But her foster brother and mother force her into marriage with a dim-witted, ugly man whom she doesn’t love. After a year, she leaves her husband, leaves her newborn baby with her foster mother, and decides to pass as white. She returns home after a few years to catch just a glimpse of her son, and then to jump from a bridge and drown herself in a river.