Building an Empire

J. Hoberman

  • Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence
    Rutgers, 280 pp, £38.95, August 2000, ISBN 0 8135 2803 8
  • Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux by J. Ronald Green
    Indiana, 368 pp, £21.95, August 2000, ISBN 0 253 33753 4

The 20th century is over but the aesthetic returns are far from counted. Take the case of the novelist and film-maker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). The most prolific director of so-called race movies and the forebear of American independent cinema, Micheaux is one of the most significant American film-makers – as well as one of the most obscure. Hardly known outside the world of film history and African American studies, Micheaux has over the past decade become a small scholarly industry, the subject of academic conferences, a regular newsletter and an annual film series. A documentary of his life has been shown a number of times on public television in the US; last autumn, the New York Film Festival presented a restored print of his best-known silent, Body and Soul (1925), with a new jazz score performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. (Max Roach has composed music for another Micheaux silent, The Symbol of the Unconquered.) There are now the two books and at least two more are on the way.

There is, as yet, no Micheaux biography, although his story is compelling. His parents were born in slavery and he was raised on a farm in rural Illinois. He worked for several years as a Pullman porter – one of the few professional jobs available to African American men – and purchased a homestead in South Dakota. (The state had a population of 166 blacks according to its 1905 census.) There, in 1913, Micheaux began his artistic career with a first-person novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. The hero was named Oscar Deveraux; the novel, which was dedicated to Booker T. Washington, celebrated Micheaux’s successful reinvention and proposed the black settlement of the North-West. Micheaux followed Washington’s bootstraps philosophy and published and distributed The Conquest himself, embarking on an aggressive round of personal appearances in black communities. His second book, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915), was a logical sequel – an account of a black writer’s adventures while promoting his book in the South.

The Forged Note concludes with the disillusioned writer’s return to South Dakota; Micheaux revisits the state in his third novel, The Homesteader (1917), an elaborate reworking of The Conquest which attracted the interest of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company – one of several black-owned or black-oriented movie studios created in response to the segregation of American movie theatres and in particular to D.W. Griffith’s stunning assault on African Americans in The Birth of a Nation (1915). First and foremost a businessman (as he is seen by the authors of Writing Himself into History), Micheaux stipulated in the sale of the screen rights that he would direct the film. When the deal fell through, he raised capital among his public and made the picture himself – at eight reels, it was the longest race film to date.

Thus began the career of the director whom J. Ronald Green provocatively introduces as Griffith’s great adversary and antithesis. As a follower of Booker T. Washington, Micheaux preached a gospel of self-help and individual responsibility. Between 1919 and 1940 (with one last epic, The Betrayal, in 1948), he wrote, directed, produced and distributed perhaps as many as forty feature films, exhibiting a tenacity unparalleled in American independent cinema. At times, Micheaux distributed his films as he had promoted his novels, driving across the country, showing his new script to ghetto exhibitors and securing an advance against the movie’s gate. When he had raised enough capital, he returned to Chicago or New York and shot the film.

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