Oscar Micheaux - Director




Nationality: American. Born: Metropolis, Illinois, 1884. Family: Married actress Alice Russell, 1929. Career: Pullman porter, then farmer, South Dakota, to 1914; published The Homesteader , 1914; founder, Western Book and Supply Company, Sioux City, Iowa, 1915; founded Micheaux Film and Book Corporation (later Micheaux Pictures Corporation), based in Sioux City and Chicago, to produce film version of The Homesteader , 1918; established office in New York City, 1921; company filed for bankruptcy, 1928, reorganized 1929; directed first "all-talkie," The Exile , 1931. Died: In Charlotte, North Carolina, c. 1951.


Films as Director, Producer, Scriptwriter and Editor:


(partial list)

1919

The Homesteader ; Circumstantial Evidence

1920

Within Our Gates

1921

Deceit ; The Gunsaulus Mystery

1922

The Dungeon

1924

Son of Satan ; Birthright

1925

Body and Soul

mid-1920s

The House behind the Cedars

1928

Easy Street

1930

A Daughter of the Congo

1931

The Exile

1932

Ten Minutes to Live ; The Girl from Chicago

1936

Swing ; Underworld ; Temptation

1937

Miracle in Harlem

1938

God's Stepchildren

1939

Lying Lips ; Birthright (sound version)

1940

The Notorious Elinor Lee

1948

The Betrayal



Publications


By MICHEAUX: article—

Article in Philadelphia Afro-American , 24 January 1925.

On MICHEAUX: books—

Sampson, Henry, Blacks in Black and White , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1977.

Young, Joseph A., Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of Black Inferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux , Westport, Connecticut, 1989.

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

Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spencer, Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2000.


On MICHEAUX: articles—

Cox, Clinton, "We Were Stars in Those Days," in New York Sunday News , 9 March 1975.

Fontenot, Chester J., Jr., "Oscar Micheaux, Black Novelist and Film Maker," in Vision and Refuge , edited by Frederick C. Luebke, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1982.

Bowser, P., "Oscar Micheaux, le pionnier," in CinémAction (Paris), January 1988.

Grupenhoff, R., "The Rediscovery of Oscar Micheaux, Black Film Pioneer," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Winter 1988.

Green, J.R., and H. Neal Jr., "Oscar Micheaux and Racial Slur: A Response to 'The Rediscovery of Oscar Micheaux,"' in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Fall 1988.

Gehr, R., "One-man Show," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 16, no. 5, May 1991.

Regester, Charlene, "The Misreading and Rereading of African-American Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux," in Film History (London), vol. 7, no. 4, Winter 1995.

Green, J. Ronald, "Oscar Micheaux's Interrogation of Caricature as Entertainment," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 51, no. 3, Spring 1998.


* * *


Until the late 1940s, film roles for blacks in Hollywood were clichéd and demeaning: mammies, butlers, maids, Pullman porters, all decimating the English language while happily, mindlessly serving their white masters. As a result, independent filmmakers—a majority of whom were white—produced approximately three hundred "race" films especially for ghetto audiences. Easily the most famous and prolific of these filmmakers was a black man, Oscar Micheaux, a one-man production and distribution company who shot over thirty features between 1918 and 1948.

Micheaux's origins—and even an accurate list of his films—cannot be clearly determined, at least from existing volumes on the black cinema, but several facts are certain. Micheaux was a vigorous promoter who toured the nation's black ghettos, establishing contact with community leaders and convincing theater owners to screen his films. He would then dispatch his actors for personal appearances.

Micheaux's budgets were meager, between $10,000 and $20,000 per feature, and he economized on sets, shooting schedules, and behind-the-scenes personnel. He often filmed a complete feature on a single set, which may have been a private home or office. Scenes were rarely shot in more than one take; if an actor blew his lines, he just recovered his composure and completed his business. As a result, production values and performances were generally dreadful.

Some of Micheaux's films do attempt to address serious issues. Within Our Gates features a sequence in which a black is lynched. Birthright (the 1939 version) is the tale of a black Harvard graduate who experiences opposition from those of his own race as well as whites. God's Stepchildren centers on a light-skinned black who tries to pass for white. Because of this subject matter, Micheaux was occasionally threatened by local censors.

However, the filmmaker was concerned mostly with entertaining and earning profits, not with controversy. Actors' screen personas were modelled after those of contemporary Hollywood stars: Lorenzo Tucker was the "Black Valentino" and, after the advent of sound, the "colored William Powell"; Bee Freeman became the "sepia Mae West"; Slick Chester the "colored Cagney"; Ethel Moses the "negro Harlow." Plotlines also mirrored those of Hollywood products: The Underworld is a gangster film; Temptation , a De Mille-like sex epic; Daughter of the Congo , a melodrama set in Africa. Micheaux also directed the first all-talking black independent feature, The Exile , and 26-year-old Paul Robeson made his screen debut in a Micheaux melodrama, Body and Soul.

—Rob Edelman

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