Black People : Oscar Micheaux: Black Filmmaker

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  1. chuck

    chuck Well-Known Member MEMBER

    United States
    Aug 9, 2003
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    Article by Martin J. Keenan


    Beneath a modest tombstone in the Great Bend cemetery rests America's pioneer black moviemaker. Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American to produce a feature-length film and the first African-America to produce a “talkie” motion picture. Micheaux has a star on Hollywood Boulevard's “Walk of Fame.” So why have you never heard of Micheaux? And why is he buried in a snow-white farm town on the high plains, far away from his former New York headquarters?

    Although Micheaux is unknown in the white community, and although many blacks wouldn't recognize his name, blacks in the movie industry know all about Micheaux - and are grateful for his legacy. When actor/producer Robert Townsend visited Micheaux's grave in 1988, he said, “Oscar Micheaux has been my idol. He inspired me to do my first film”.1 Director Spike Lee credits Oscar Micheaux as a film pioneer in nearly every interview he gives.2 Actor and director Tim Reid, star of the TV sitcom, Sister, Sister, calls Micheaux, “his biggest hero,”3 and Carl Franklin, director of Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) calls Micheaux, “one of his idols”4.

    Micheaux was born in 1884 near Metropolis, Illinois, the son of freed slaves. He was one of 11 children — five boys and six girls.5 From oldest to youngest, the children were Lawrence, Ida, William Owen ("W.O.")., Finis, Oscar, Maude, Olive ("Ollie"), Ethel, Veatrice, Gertrude ("Gertie"), and Swan, Jr. He worked in Chicago as a shoe-shine boy, and porter on a Pullman car before homesteading in South Dakota and becoming a farmer. But his real passion was writing, and he wrote several novels in a shack-like home on the howling South Dakota prairie. Micheaux formed his own publishing company, and sold copies of the books door-to-door. He then decided that his books would be even better as movies.

    The motion picture industry was in the silent film era, and blacks were not welcome in the industry. The only way a black could become a movie producer was to start his own company. Micheaux did just that, and turned his autobiographical novel, The Homesteader, into a movie in 1919. This was the first feature length film produced by an American black.6 Actor and director Tim Reid summed it up: “Not only did he do the impossible, creating a Black film industry at a time when Blacks weren't even considered photographical by White filmmakers, but here was a man who pioneered by writing, producing and directing his own movies...”7

    Micheaux produced, directed and wrote at least 43 movies in his life — 27 silent films and 16 sound features.8 He was the first American black to produce a “talkie” — The Exile (1931).9 Micheaux did it all - hired the actors, directed the movies and even distributed the movies to some 700 segregated black theaters across America. Micheaux worked on a shoestring, often taking only one “take” of a scene. While the cost cutting is obvious in the quality of his movies, Micheaux was clearly “a man ahead of his time,” as his tombstone reads. Regrettably, most of Micheaux's films are lost and only 10 are commercially available.10 Fortunately, all seven of Micheaux's novels are available, and two are still in print.

    How did Micheaux finance the movies? Micheaux visited black theaters prior to filming the movies, and showed the theater owners photographs of the actors. The theaters would then pay Micheaux in advance, in exchange for first-run rights, and he would produce the movies and bring them back to those theaters. Micheaux even distributed his films internationally. Micheaux was described by one writer as a “crafty buccaneer”11 who tirelessly promoted his work. Lorenzo Tucker, a star in Micheaux's movies, once said, “Why he was so impressive and so charming that he could talk the shirt off your back.”12 One critic wrote that when Micheaux entered a room it was as if “he were God about to deliver a sermon.”13

    According to George Jackson, producer of the contemporary movies New Jack City and House Party II, even today blacks need to do it all themselves at times: “There are three axes of power: finance, distribution and talent. Until you control one or all, you're powerless.”14 Citing the inspiration of Micheaux, Robert Townsend formed his own company and produced the comic hit, Hollywood Shuffle. Spike Lee also formed his own company, “40 Acres and a Mule” and has produced controversial and popular black films such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Denzel Washington has formed “Mundy Lane Entertainment,” and Micheaux's legacy inspired Tim Reid to open his own film studio in Petersburg, Virginia.15

    Micheaux, much like his modern day successors, was not afraid to tackle controversial subjects. His films dealt with topics such as lynching, white-on-black crime, corrupt preachers, and light/dark intra-racial discrimination. Micheaux's film, Within our Gates (1920) was a black response to the racist film, Birth of a Nation (1915). No copies of Within our Gates were believed to survive until a copy was recently found in Spain.

    Micheaux boasted “an all star colored cast” and famous black singer and actor Paul Robeson made his film debut in the Micheaux movie Body and Soul (1924). Robeson was a law school graduate and a star of the stage, who popularized the song, Ol' Man River in the play, Showboat. Also, Robert Earl Jones, the father of modern day actor James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy) starred in Micheaux films. Actor Lorenzo Tucker was billed by Micheaux as “the black Valentino”; Bee Freeman as “the sepia Mae West”; Slick Chester as the “Colored Cagney”; and Ethel Moses as “The Negro Harlow.”16 Also, Oscar Polk, who played Scarlett O'Hara's servant in Gone with the Wind, appeared in Micheaux's film, The Underworld (1947).

    Many of Micheaux's films were so-called “exploitational” films, and Micheaux was not afraid to explore sexual topics in his movies. However, Micheaux's most influential films dealt with serious racial topics. Micheaux was a follower of Booker T. Washington, who urged blacks to concentrate on economic gains rather than immediate social and political equality. Micheaux complained that too many blacks failed to take advantage of economic opportunities.

    Micheaux's last film, The Betrayal, was released in 1948. The three-hour film opened in white theaters and flopped at the box office. However, the movie was a hit at black theaters. Micheaux died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of 67 while on a trip to the South to promote his work. He was buried in Great Bend. Micheaux was married twice: first to Orlean E. McCracken, and then to Alice Russell, an actress who appeared in Micheaux's films.17 Micheaux had no children.

    Why isn't Micheaux buried in his native Illinois, in his homestead state of South Dakota, or in New York where he lived and worked? Micheaux had relatives who homesteaded in Central Kansas. (The original spelling of the surname was "Michaux," although some family members used the new spelling of "Micheaux".) His uncle, William P. Micheaux, together with Micheaux's grandmother, Melvina, homesteaded in Stafford County in 1878.18 So did Andrew Jackson Michaux, another uncle, who later moved to Great Bend and was married to Lillie Michaux.19 Andrew once owned over 700 acres of land in central Kansas and died in 1942.20 Oscar Micheaux's aunt, Harriett Michaux, married Stafford County homesteader Napoleon Robinson.21 Blacks who migrated to Kansas after Reconstruction were called “exodusters.” However, another uncle, Edward Michaux, did not move to Kansas, but returned to Africa to Liberia. Edward Michaux became a successful farmer and politician in Liberia, even serving in the Cabinet of the Liberia's national government.

    In approximately 1901, Oscar Micheaux's parents moved from Illinois to Great Bend.22 Oscar Micheaux's mother, Belle, died in 1918 and was described by the Great Bend Tribune as a “fine woman and good mother,” with “sterling qualities.”23 Oscar Micheaux's father, Calvin Swan Micheaux, known as "Swan," died in 1932 and was described by the Great Bend Tribune as a "hardworking, industrious man, and a good citizen."24 Both are buried in Great Bend. Detailed geneological information about Oscar Micheaux's family was discovered by the late Juanita Neuforth and her daughter, Karen Neuforth, of Great Bend, in 1988.

    Oscar Micheaux's obituary in the Great Bend Tribune calls him a “former Great Bend resident.”25 However, he probably never lived in Great Bend for an extended time. He visited Kansas frequently, especially in the summers. Micheaux's autobiographical novel “The Conquest” makes reference to him visiting his parents in Kansas, shooting jackrabbits while bragging about the Dakotas to the “Jayhawkers.”26 Micheaux considered Great Bend his adopted hometown - along with Harlem, New York.27

    Micheaux was survived by his widow, Alice, four sisters, and a brother in New York.28 The brother in New York was Swan Micheaux, Jr., the former secretary-treasurer of Micheaux Film Corporation.29Oscar's funeral service was conducted at Cook and Weber Mortuary, with Rev. A.S. Hunt officiating.30 Four of Oscar Micheaux's siblings are buried in Great Bend: William Owen Micheaux, Ethel Wilson, Veatrice Micheaux and Swan Micheaux, Jr.31 Tragically, in 1915, Veatrice Micheaux had been shot and killed by a jealous suitor while she was on a date with another man.32 Sadly, the Micheaux's home in Great Bend had burned to the ground just a few days before Veatrice was shot.

    Tom Hermansen is the former manager of Great Bend Manor, the nursing home where Oscar's brother, Swan Micheaux, Jr., lived before his death in 1975. In a letter to black film expert, Henry T. Sampson, Hermansen eloquently recalled Swan, Jr: “Swan was a rather quiet man, of small frame, twinkling eyes and when I talked with him I always had the feeling he knew something I would never know. It wasn't with an air of arrogance or flaunting, but simply something different; not intimidating but something like ‘the cat got the canary.' He was a nice pleasant fellow...”33.

    Hermansen and his wife, Diana, together with Juanita Neuforth, located Oscar Micheaux's grave in 1987. They discovered that Micheaux had no tombstone, but that his grave had been marked with a small metal plate since his death. Together with Harley Robinson, Jr., a second cousin of Micheaux from California, they raised funds in Great Bend and Hollywood and purchased a tombstone for Micheaux.34 On October 8, 1988, the tombstone was dedicated in a ceremony attended by Micheaux relatives, Hollywood people and local residents. James Shabazz of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame was in attendance, as was director, Robert Townsend. (Micheaux's grave is next to a paved road in Section R of the cemetery, straight north of the Mausoleum, in the extreme north side of the cemetery). Oscar's father and brother (Swan, Jr.) still have no tombstones, but have temporary metal markers on their graves.

    An Oscar Micheaux film festival at Barton County Community College followed the tombstone dedication. A scholarship was established for Micheaux at BCCC. The scholarship fund is relatively small, and has not reached endowment capacity. The first Oscar Micheaux scholarship recipient was Angelina Garner, an African-American singer at Barton County Community College.

    Micheaux's cousins currently living in Central Kansas include Edna Jones, Bernice Gray and Delores Davies (third cousins) of Great Bend, Anthony and Donald Robinson of Great Bend (fourth cousins), and Thelma Madison (second cousin) of Larned. Californian Harley Robinson, Jr., a former Great Bend resident, is a dynamic promoter of Micheaux, who inherited Micheaux's charm and gift of gab. In 1997, he attended a five-day Oscar Micheaux Festival in Gregory, South Dakota, where Micheaux homesteaded.

    Given the acute interest in Oscar Micheaux in black moviemaking circles, perhaps it is only a matter of time before a movie is made about Micheaux's life. Actor James McDaniel of NYPD Blue is currently working on a Micheaux film biography. The movie will undoubtedly be entertaining, as it portrays the indefagitable, can-do Micheaux breaking through racial barriers in both urban and rural settings.

    Kansas has made remarkable contributions in the black film and literature areas. Poet Langston Hughes hails from Lawrence. Gordon Parks, one of the first blacks to compose, write and direct a major motion picture is from Fort Scott, and Hattie McDaniel, the first black to win an Oscar (Mammy in Gone with the Wind) is from Wichita. And Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black to win a Pulitzer is a Topeka native. The Barton County Arts Council is planning an “Oscar Micheaux Golden Anniversary Celebration” on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of Oscar's death — March 24-25, 2001.

    Ultimately, Oscar Micheaux is not a black American hero, but simply an American hero. He successfully pursued his impossible dreams against steep odds. Micheaux is an inspiration to anyone - black or white - who has the courage to make their crazy dreams come true. Micheaux, the pioneer, writer, filmmaker and salesman was an American original.


    1Hogg, Dale, “Headstone allows Micheaux to go gentle into that good night,” Great Bend Tribune, October 9,1988. Return to text
    2Fitzgerald, Sharon, “Spike Lee: fast forward” American Visions, v.10, n.5, p.20, Oct-Nov.1995. Return to text

    3“Black History Month: stars reveal their favorite heroes in black history,” Jet, v.91, n.13, p.12, Feb.17,1997. Return to text

    4Shattuck, Kathryn, “Marquee is the Message When Movie is the Medium Keep Your Eye on its Title,” Wichita Eagle, September 25,1995, p.7a. Return to text

    5C.S. and Belle Michaux “Family Data Sheet,” genealogy compiled by the late Juanita Neuforth and her daughter, Karen Neuforth, of Great Bend, Kansas in 1988; see, also, obituary of Mrs.C.S.Michaux, Great Bend Tribune, Dec.23,1918. Return to text

    6“Midnight Ramble: The Story of the Black Film Industry” PBS video (The American Experience), Shanachie Entertainment Corp.;1994. Return to text

    7Jet, p.12,supra. Return to text

    8Dorsey, Learthen, introduction to Oscar Michaeux' 1913 novel, “The Conquest”, University of Nebraska Press, Bison Book, p. xii (1994) Return to text

    9“Midnight Ramble”, supra. Return to text

    10Dorsey at p.xii, supra. Return to text

    11Seymour, Gene, “Black Film/White Money,” The Nation, v.263, n.5, p.34, Aug.12,1996. Return to text

    12Woodland, J.Randal, “Oscar Micheaux,” Dictionary of Literary Biographyvol.50, p.223 (1986). Return to text

    13Id. at p.225. Return to text

    14Lowery, Mark and Sabir, Nadirah Z., “The making of `Hollyhood',” Black Enterprise, v.25, n.5, p.104, Dec.,1994. Return to text

    15Jet, p.12, supra. Return to text

    16Woodland, p.223, supra. Return to text

    17C.S. and Belle Michaux, “Family Data Sheet” supra; Oscar Micheaux Marriage Certificate No.532535, Cook Co., Ill. Return to text

    18Melvina Micheaux obituary, Great Bend Tribune, March 6, 1916; “Film pioneer buried at local cemetery” Great Bend Tribune, Feb.11,1987. Return to text

    19“Andrew Michaux Dead,” Great Bend Tribune, January 12,1942. Return to text

    20Author's conversation with Great Bend, Kansas attorney, Ray S. Schulz, a local historian who probated Lillie Michaux' estate. Return to text

    21“Mrs. Napoleon Robinson” Great Bend Tribune, December 8,1921. Return to text

    22“Mrs. C.S.Michaux,” Great Bend Tribune, December 23,1918. Return to text

    23Id. Return to text

    24“Swan Michaux Dead” Great Bend Tribune, Jan.25,1932. Return to text

    25“Oscar Michaux Dies in Charlotte, N.C.,” Great Bend Tribune, March 27,1951. Return to text

    26Micheaux, Oscar, “The Conquest” (1913), University of Nebraska Press, Bison Book Edition, p.175 (1994). Return to text

    27“Micheaux Memorial Planned,” Barton County Genealogical Society newsletter, Vol.VIII, no.3, summer, 1988. Return to text

    28“Oscar Michaux Dies in Charlotte, N.C.,” Great Bend Tribune, March 27,1951, supra. Return to text

    29Sampson, Henry T., “Blacks in Black & White: A Source Book on Black Films”, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J., p.62 (1977). Return to text

    30“Micheaux Body to GB for Services Friday” Great Bend Tribune, March 28,1951. Return to text

    31C.S. & Belle Michaux, “Family Data Sheet” supra. Return to text

    32“Story of Murder; No Arrest Yet” Great Bend Tribune, May 20,1915; “Beatrice Micheaux Dies,” Barton County Democrat, May 19,1915. Return to text

    33Private correspondence from Tom A. Hermansen to black film expert and author Henry T.Sampson, February 13,1987. Return to text

    34Hogg, Dale, Great Bend Tribune, supra; Biles, Jan, “Film maker's star in Hollywood, headstone in Great Bend,” Hutchinson News, October 9,1988, p.3; Berry, Mike, “Great Bend Salutes a Hometown Hero” Wichita Eagle, October 8,1988, p.1a; Wilson, Mike, “Resting place of black film maker gets headstone,” Great Bend Tribune, August 21,1988, p.1.

    The Author of This Paper
    This paper was written by Martin J. Keenan, an attorney-at-law in Great Bend, KS. If you are interested in Oscar Micheaux and wish to contact Keenan, you may send e-mail to: [email protected]