Oscar Micheaux, the first black film mogul
1986 was a critical year for black voices in film, and not just because director Spike Lee made his directorial debut with She must have it. It was also the year the Directors Guild of America bestowed a Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award on the late filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, an important but often overlooked pioneer in the early days of cinema.
In fact, Micheaux is one of the most successful independent filmmakers of all time; Over the course of his career, he produced over 40 feature films, many of which focused on the themes of social activism, civil rights and race relations at a time when they were barely represented in theaters. of a large studio. An Oscar Micheaux production was just that: a creation conceived and produced by one of the first black filmmakers in history. But having such ambitions did not lack obstacles.
A leading role
Micheaux had a deep understanding of the racial divide that covered the 19th century. Born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884, Micheaux’s parents, Calvin and Bell, were both born slaves. The freedom Oscar later had to travel and explore the world was therefore not something he took lightly. After working for a few years as a train carrier, he moved to South Dakota and began a career as a farmer, cultivating land granted by the government for a nominal fee to encourage expansion westward. Soon Micheaux expanded his land holdings from 160 acres to over 1,000 acres.
He also married Orlean McCracken in 1910, but the relationship was strained. With his marriage on thin ice and his farming in the face of a drought, Micheaux moved to Sioux City in 1913 and turned into a novelist, writing the semi-autobiographical The Conquest: the story of a Negro pioneer in 1913, The forged note in 1915, and the fictionalized memory The farmer in 1917, among others.
The farmer was the remarkable work of Micheaux at the time. In it, its protagonist, John the Baptist, causes a sensation in the world of white settlers in South Dakota by falling in love with a white woman named Agnes Stewart. Micheaux flirts with this controversy in the text before making the hero discover that he was wrong about his race – Agnes is biracial. This concession probably saved Micheaux from any serious condemnation by critics while allowing him to explore a taboo subject.
Micheaux sold his books door-to-door, achieving enough success to form his own publishing house, Western Book Supply. This was the solution to the prejudicial editorial attitudes of the time, which paid little attention to authentic accounts of the black experience.
“I want to see the negro portrayed in the books as he lives,” Micheaux said. “But, if you write that way, white paper publishers won’t publish your scripts, so I formed my own book publishing house and I write my own books, and black people love them too, because three of them are bestsellers. “
The same barriers Micheaux found in publishing were also present in the nascent film industry. When the producers of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company tried to buy the rights to make The farmerMicheaux became frustrated with the protracted negotiations as well as the limited role he would have in the way the film was produced. Rather than relinquish control, Micheaux instead formed his own production company, Micheaux Film and Book Co., on the premise that he himself had learned to farm and therefore could learn to make films. . And just like that, Michelaux was in the movie business.
The silent cinema version of The farmer was released in Chicago in 1919, with Micheaux producing and directing. Reviews were positive, but it’s unclear exactly how close Micheaux was to his own source. The century-old film did not survive, a recurring problem at a time when preservation of films was not on anyone’s mind.
A life in the cinema
With the success of The farmer, Micheaux was able to pursue his film career in earnest and tackle increasingly controversial subjects. In the 1920’s In our doors, a racist man is about to commit a sexual assault when he realizes that his victim is his own daughter. The candid depiction of racism in the film, including a lynching, was meant to counterbalance the sanitized version seen in director DW Griffith’s film. The birth of a nation (1915). Following the Chicago race riot in 1919, local ministers believed anti-lynching sentiment would spark further assault and asked him not to show it. Micheaux ignored them and the audience lined up.
In the 1925s Body and soul, a priest (played by Paul Robeson, who will star in many Micheaux films) struggles with his corrupt faith, which has the censors on edge. They declared the film “sacrilegious, immoral and [that it] would tend to incite violence. Michelaux was forced to modify it.
In the 1935s Murder in HarlemMicheaux himself appears as a detective involved in a murder that white police blamed on a black man. The lawyer who helps clear the man’s name successfully completed his law studies by selling door-to-door books, a nod to Micheaux’s own past.
Most of Micheaux’s films were out of the norm for Hollywood at the time, which largely ignored black audiences. The theaters were generally separate, with black spectators relegated to the balcony. A Micheaux movie would pack all-black theaters, with Micheaux himself often going directly to movie theater owners to book his films.
Although the films were modestly budgeted at around $ 10,000 to $ 20,000 each and often successful, Micheaux was in a constant state of financial uncertainty. This had an impact on the quality of his films: Micheaux sometimes chose to use the first good take or even shoot in the family home of his second wife Alice in Montclair, New Jersey. Funds were raised by selling stocks or promising investors that they could put their children in his films. Due to its limited budgets, many of its actors were amateurs rather than professionals.
As silent films gave way to “talkies,” Micheaux continued to work, but the roughness of his low-budget films became more pronounced as studios spent most of their funding on lavish productions and offered symbolic roles for black artists.
The financial struggle ultimately ended Micheaux’s film career, but not before he made one final splash with The treason, a 1948 film where, once again, a black rancher (Leroy Collins) falls in love with a multiracial woman (Myra Stanton).
The treason was budgeted at $ 100,000, a rich sum for the time. With a runtime of 3.5 hours, it was a tough sell to exhibitors, so Micheaux suggested dividing it into three films. Although it was received with lukewarmness, it became the first film with an all-black cast to premiere at a theater in the Broadway area of New York City.
The treason would also be Micheaux’s last film. He spent his last years writing books until his death from undisclosed causes at the age of 67 on March 25, 1951.
A delayed inheritance
In part because only a fraction of his films have survived – less than 12 in total – recognition has been slow in coming for Micheaux. More than 30 years have passed between his death in 1951 and the Director’s Guild Award in 1986.
There are signs that could change. In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, and in 2019, the Library of Congress selected the years 1925 Body and soul to be preserved because of its cultural significance. They did the same in 1993 to In our doors, which was discovered after being hidden in a Spanish safe since 1979. Filmmaker Tyler Perry plans to make an HBO Max series about Micheaux’s life. There are ongoing calls for the Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences to pay homage to Micheaux, who was not only a pioneer of black cinema, but cinema as a whole.
“If it hadn’t been for Oscar Micheaux, there certainly wouldn’t have been Tyler Perry,” Perry said. Variety in 2020.
While history may have needed to catch up with Micheaux’s accomplishments, his contemporaries did not. On Micheaux’s gravestone reads a simple inscription: “A man ahead of his time”.