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Oscar Micheaux

Born 2 January 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois, USA.
Died 25 March 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, of heart disease.

Brother of producer Swan E. Micheaux.
Married actress and producer Alice Burton Russell, 20 March 1926.

Writer, producer and director, Oscar Micheaux is the father of Afro-American cinema. The most prolific Afro-American filmmaker of the silent era, Micheaux produced more than 40 films between 1919 and 1940, and was active as a novelist until his death. Quaintly referred to as the “Cecil B. De Mille of Race Movies,” Micheaux was a controversial figure during his lifetime. Like today’s premier Afro-American director Spike Lee, Micheaux and his films were publicly misunderstood.

The grandson of a slave, and the fifth of 11 children, Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois. He worked at various jobs, a coal miner, a stockyards worker and a Pullman porter, before becoming a homesteader and novelist in Gregory, South Dakota, in the 1910s.

Failing to get his novel, The Homesteader, made into a film through the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Micheaux established his own motion picture and book publishing company while studying the techniques of film production. The Micheaux Film and Book Publishing Corporation, founded 1918 in Chicago, would soon be the most prolific of all black-owned independent film companies. The Homesteader (1919) with Charles D. Lucas, Evelyn Preer and Iris Hall was his first entry in the race-film industry.

A fledging industry known as “race movies,” existed in the United States from 1910 to the end of World War II. Made predominantly by Blacks (especially in the 1920s) for black audiences, these independent films emerged from a direct response to Jim Crow theaters and an exclusionary Hollywood system. They were a part of the Afro-American community’s attempts in countering and providing alternative images to the stereotypes so prevalent in mainstream culture. The William D. Foster Film Company, actor and cofounder Nobel Johnson’s Lincoln Motion Picture, The Richard F. Norman Company of Florida (The Flying Ace, 1926), and the Philadelphia-based Colored Players Film Corp. (The Scar of Shame, 1929) were other important race-film producers. Produced outside the Hollywood system, Micheaux’s race cinema cannot be viewed as commercial entertainment. An appreciation of them must take Afro-American history and the prevailing ideology into context.

Micheaux and other black filmmakers experienced manifold financial, technical and systemic obstacles in producing and distributing their films. He produced his films on low ‘shoestring’ budgets and marketed them himself peddling and reediting a single print from city to city for exhibitors, regional censorship boards and theatre owners. Always in search for new markets, Micheaux traveled to Europe and South America. An enterprising showman, Micheaux used this forte in persuading hesitant Southern theater owners to screen his films in segregated cinemas or at blacks-only “midnight ramble” showings. While on promotional tours, he would procure financial backers for upcoming projects, encourage black businessmen to invest in black theaters and scout for fresh screen talent. Micheaux Productions went bankrupt in 1928, reincorporated in 1930, going into final receivership in 1940.

Like D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, Micheaux also created his own star system/stock company of featured players. Evelyn Preer, a talented dramatic actress with the Lafayette Theatre Players Company, was his first leading lady. She starred in nine Micheaux features and was, in addition, a popular musical comedy and race recording artist. Lawrence Chenault, Lorenzo Tucker (dubbed the “black Rudolph Valentino”), Clarence Brooks, Ethel Moses, Andrew Bishop (a regular villain), Shingzie Howard, Alec Lovejoy, Katherine Noisette, Laura Bowman and his statuesque wife, Alice B. Russell, were other Micheaux regulars. Attractive and assertive personalities, they were detached from the Afro-American menial stereotypes found in Hollywood films. Biographical details about Micheaux players remain obscure.

Micheaux, a maverick and a social activist, did not hesitate in confronting issues that agitated both black and white audiences. His films interrogated the value systems of both communities in a variety of controversial subjects, causing problems with the press and state censors in the process. In essence, Micheaux’s films represented the emergence of a radical black voice in the mass media. Tales of mixed-race relationships or miscegenation was his favorite theme in critiques of ‘passing,’ assimilation and racial betrayal. His second feature, Within Our Gates (1920), was a rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan propaganda of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Micheaux’s multiple subplots revolve around the travails of heroine Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) and her attempt to raise money from a wealthy Boston patroness to save a Southern black school. Within Our Gates remains a poignant indictment of a Southern lynching and the attempted rape of the mixed race heroine by a white molester who turns out to be her father. Here, Micheaux counters and exposes the trajectory contradictions of Klan vigilantism and White America’s fears of miscegenation. His films reflected his racial ‘uplift’ didacticism and were part of his attempts to raise social consciousness while probing the black community’s values in a realistic, if not always ‘positive’ light.

Body and Soul (1925) featured Paul Robeson in his screen debut. Robeson plays a dual role of a ‘good’ twin brother and a bogus ‘preacher’ who preys on a small community’s religious fervor and then attempts to rape the heroine Julia Theresa Russell (Micheaux’s future sister-in-law). The Afro-American press, sometimes misguided, criticized him for representing corruption in the black clergy (a sensitive area) and ‘exploiting’ black urban life, crime and sexuality in his films. The film ran into trouble with New York censors. The censored and truncated print of Body and Soul, unfortunately, is all that survives of Micheaux’s original intentions.

Forgotten for many years, most of Micheaux’s films were mislaid or destroyed. The Homesteader (1919), The Brute (1920), The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921), Birthright (1924), The House Behind the Cedars (1924), The Conjure Woman (1926), The Spider’s Web (1927), The Millionaire (1927), The Wages of Sin (1928) are among his presumed lost silent films. A Daughter of the Congo (1930), a part-talkie, and Easy Street (1930) are also presumed lost. The Library of Congress holds a 16mm reduction print of The Exile (1931), his first full-length sound feature.

Considered lost for decades, Within Our Gates (La Negra) was discovered in Madrid’s Filmoteca Espanol in 1990. The Library of Congress later restored and retranslated its subtitles. Within Our Gates, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) discovered in a Belgian archive, and Body and Soul (restored by George Eastman Museum) are Micheaux’s earliest surviving features.

Only Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925) are available on VHS and DVD home video. His equally rare sound films, Veiled Aristocrats (1932), The Girl from Chicago (1932), Murder in Harlem (1935), God’s Stepchildren (1937), Swing! (1938) and Lying Lips (1939) are currently available.

Difficult to situate in history, it was convenient to ignore race filmmaking as an aesthetic or political practice. Today, Micheaux and his contemporaries (The R.F. Norman Company and The Colored Players Corporation) are experiencing a renaissance of critical study and appreciation. The recent efforts of archivists Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines and J. Ronald Green have ensured that their legacy is finally being recognized as a worthy contribution to American cinema.

In 1987, Micheaux was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He remains a major film stylist and politico.

Biography by Joseph Worrell

References: Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York, New York: Continuum Publishing, 1989; Bowser, Pearl. Writing Himself Into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000; Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 1977; Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Films in the Silent Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001; Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Oscar Micheaux Silent Era Filmography
Book : Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences
by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence
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