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Oscar Micheaux DIRECTOR


Oscar Devereaux Micheaux was the first African-American director to produce a full length feature film that had black actors and was geared towards a black audience. Between 1919 and 1940, he directed and produced more than forty films. He used motion pictures as a medium to communicate his ideas of anti-racism, and once even said “One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything”, which was exactly what he conveyed in his films. Since he was part of a minority in that time, he was not allowed to be a part of any studios, so he did his work independently, and is hence also seen as a pioneer of independent cinema.

He was born on January 2, 1984 in Metropolis, Illinois, as a first generation free citizen. At seventeen, he left home for Chicago, where he became a Pullman porter. Eventually, he acquired land, and started his life as a farmer, although he had had no previous farming experience. His experience on his homestead led him to writing a novel called “The Homesteader” (1917). He tried to get it picked up and turned into a movie, but every studio denied him. Instead, he founded The Micheaux Film and Book Publishing Corporation and published and distributed his work and came out with a film version in 1919. This was his debut entry in the up-and-coming race film industry. Micheaux’s next movie was “Within Our Gates” (1920), and was in response to D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan glorifying movie, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). In 1925 he put out a controversial film, “Body and Soul”, that according to the black clergy, exploited black urban life, sexuality, and crime. It also failed to pass New York censors.  However, he quickly released many other pictures, like “Sons of Satan” (1922), “Birthright” (1924), “Wages of Sin” (1929), “Underworld” (1936), and “God’s Stepchildren” (1937). While the director created over forty films, many of them were destroyed or forgotten. Alleged silent films that were misplaced include  “The Homesteader” (1919), “The Brute” (1920), “The Gunsaulus Mystery” (1921), “Birthright” (1924), “The Spider’s Web” (1927), “A Daughter of the Congo” (1930), which was part talkie, and “Easy Street” (1930). Fortunately, the Library of Congress found and kept his very first full length sound picture, “The Exile” (1931), nice and safe. Micheaux’s talkie features “Veiled Aristocrats” (1932), “The Girl From Chicago” (1932), “Murder in Harlem” (1935), “God’s Stepchildren” (1937), “Swing” (1938), and “Lying Lips” (1939) are all available today, as well as “Within Our Gates” (1920) and “Body and Soul” (1925).

With their disturbing racist content, Micheaux’s pictures showed what life was like for the black middle class. His lead characters’ trouble with racial prejudice was added to typical issues, like financial and romantic trouble. By involving the problems of the current time, the director’s films made a subtle request for black unity, while also promoting them to be normal people. On top of humanizing the darker races, Micheaux also gave many of them opportunities to be heard. He allowed several black actors and actresses to be seen in roles other than the stereotypical Hollywood slaves, servants, and brutes. They were given aggressive, powerful, and meaningful parts, especially the females. Often times, they were shown to be just as cultured, erudite, and wealthy as whites.

The director additionally was one of the only independent black directors to survive the sound era. Most race movie creators were forced to quit because of lack of equipment which was needed to transition to sound, as well as economic issues that arose from the Great Depression. Nevertheless, Micheaux persevered and made sure his message far outweighed the poor lighting, limited editing, bad sound, and botched dialogue present in his talkies. He cut further costs by filming in friends’ homes or self made sets, which lent to the realism apparent in his movies. He also was an avid promoter of his pictures, going around convincing white theaters to have special colored showings and giving out his work to nearly a hundred black theaters.

Sadly, Micheaux never achieved his dream of having his films shown to both black and white audiences alike, but he came close. His final film, “Betrayal” (1948), opened up at a white theater in New York and the press focused in on the event, but the public failed to take much notice. The movie failed, and the director later went on a promotional tour. While on the tour, he passed away. His date of death was March 25, 1951. Micheaux’s great films were neglected for over thirty years, until in 1987 his talent was finally acknowledged, and he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Since then, he has had numerous other awards and honors given in his name, and he lives on as the beginning of a great line of African-American directors.

1948       The Betrayal

1940       The Notorious Elinor Lee

1939       Lying Lips

1939       Birthright

1938       God's Step Children

1938       Swing!

1937       Underworld

1935       Murder in Harlem

1935       Temptation

1934       Harlem After Midnight

1933       Phantom of Kenwood

1932       Ten Minutes to Live

1932       Veiled Aristocrats

1932       Black Magic

1932       The Girl from Chicago

1931       The Exile

1931       Darktown Revue 

1930       Easy Street

1930       A Daughter of the Congo

1929       Wages of Sin

1928       Thirty Years Later

1928       When Men Betray

1927       The Millionaire

1927       The Spider's Web

1927       The Broken Violin

1927       The House Behind the Cedars

1926       The Conjure Woman

1926       The Devil's Disciple

1925       Body and Soul

1925       Marcus Garland

1924       A Son of Satan

1924       Birthright

1923       The Virgin of Seminole

1923       Deceit

1922       The Dungeon

1922       The Hypocrite

1922       Uncle Jasper's Will

1921       The Gunsaulus Mystery

1920       The Symbol of the Unconquered

1920       The Brute

1920       Within Our Gates

1919       The Homesteader

Matinee Classics - Deceit starring Evelyn Preer, William Fountaine, Norman Johnstone, A.B. DeComathiere, Cleo Desmond, Louis De Bulger and Mabel Young
Matinee Classics - The Notorious Elinor Lee starring Gladys Williams, Robert Earl Jones, Carman Newsome, Edna Mae Harris, Vera Burelle, Eddie Lemons, Columbus Jackson and Laura Bowman
Matinee Classics - The Exile starring Eunice Brooks, Stanley Morrell, Celeste Cole, Katherine Moisette, Charles Moore, Nora Newsome, George Randol, A.B. Comathiere, Carl Mahon, Lou Vernon, Louise Cook and Roland Holder

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