Black History Month feature: Meet Oscar Micheaux

Oscar

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) was a towering figure even by today’s standards. He was not only America’s preeminent black filmmaker for three decades, but also the country’s most prolific; having directed or produced 22 silent movies and 15 talking pictures during his illustrious career. This little-known pioneer, part visionary, part showman, Micheaux was both a maverick filmmaker and an inveterate hustler who used every weapon at his disposal to break the color barrier and thrive in a profession he helped to invent. He made a fortune and lost it again.

One of the most talented and complex figures in the history of American entertainment. The son of freed slaves, Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, Illinois, then roamed America as a Pullman porter before making his first mark as a homesteader in South Dakota. Disaster and defeat there led him to forge a career publishing a successful series of autobiographical novels.Ever the entrepreneur, when Hollywood failed to bid high enough for film rights to his stories, he answered by forming his own film production company. Micheaux became the king of the “race cinema” industry at a time when black-produced films had to scrounge for venues in a segregated society.

His films include: The Homesteader, Within Our Gates, The Brute, The Symbol of the Unconquered, The Gunsaulus Mystery, The Dungeon, The Hypocrite, Uncle Jasper’s Will, The Virgin of the Seminole, Deceit, Birthright, A Son of Satan, Body and Soul, Marcus Garland,The Conjure Woman, The Devil’s Disciple, The Spider’s Web, The Millionaire, The Broken Violin, The House Behind the Cedars, Thirty Years Later, When Men Betray, Wages of Sin, Easy Street, A Daughter of the Congo, Darktown Revue, The Exile, Veiled Aristocrats, Ten Minutes to Live, Black Magic, The Girl from Chicago, Phantom of Kenwood, Harlem After Midnight, Murder in Harlem, Temptation Underworld, God’s Step Children, Swing!, Lying Lips, Birthright, The Notorious Elinor Lee, and The Betrayal.

Discover the details about this amazing individual in these two recent film and book projects:
The Czar of Black Hollywood (2014) uses archival film, photos, illustrations and music to chronicle Micheaux’s life and his production of the first feature length silent film and sound motion picture by an African-American. Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (The Homesteader, in 1920) and a sound feature-length film (The Exile, in 1931), is a pioneer of independent cinema. Micheaux the filmmaker is a symbol of the artist triumphing over long odds to bring his vision to the public at large while serving in the socially important role of critical spirit. Written, directed and edited by Bayer Mack; narrated by William Bell; Studio: Block Starz Music Television LLC; Run Time: 67 minutes; available on DVD for $17.96; or Rent it online for $2.99 at VIMEO: www.vimeo.com

Oscar Micheaux, the great and only: the life of America’s first Black filmmaker by Patrick McGilligan (2007: HarperCollins, 402 pages) is available at the Nashville Public Library or order it at Alkebu-Lan Images, Inc. In his searching exploration, McGilligan tracks down long-lost financial records, unpublished letters, and unmarked pauper’s graves, pinpointing Micheaux’s birthplace, his tangled personal life, and the circumstances of his tragic death. The result is an epic that bridges a fascinating period in American history, and offers lessons for anyone who would understand the role of black America in forming the culture of our time.