The first time I learned about Oscar Micheaux was in a college film course that focused on the contributions of African-Americans. It was the late 1970s. Most African-Americans my age considered blax-ploitation films like Shaft and Superfly cutting-edge black cinema. Little did we know that more than 50 years earlier, a man named Oscar Micheaux had literally paved the way for all these.
Micheaux, a grandson of black slaves, was the most successful independent filmmaker in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when most Hollywood films — beginning in the silent era with the overtly racist Birth of a Nation — either disparaged black people with stereotypical images or excluded them altogether.
Micheaux (1884-1951) was more than just a prolific filmmaker. He also became a bestselling novelist and a groundbreaking entrepreneur. With dozens of films to his credit — both silent and “talkies” — Micheaux was the rare black man who played “the white man’s game” during Jim Crow segregation and often came out on top.
The pressures of being such a visionary, however, would put Micheaux on the road to serious health issues.
In Patrick McGilligan’s riveting biography, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, Micheaux’s story is told in voluminous and intricate detail. McGilligan, who has written well-regarded biographies of film legends George Cukor, Jack Nicholson and Alfred Hitchcock among others, uses public and private records to get into the mind of the legendary black filmmaker.
A third of the book deals with Micheaux’s beginnings as a homesteader in South Dakota. Micheaux, who hailed from southern Illinois, wanted more blacks to join a Western rush to purchase land. His writings on the subject gained him a measure of fame. But it was only after a self-published novel about his life was used as a source for a series of self-produced films that his true calling presented itself.
Micheaux was a shadowy figure, part hustler and part visionary. McGilligan painstakingly examines his life but admits he was unable to unearth such details as exactly how many films Micheaux actually produced, whether he had a second wife, or even if he ever traveled outside the U.S. as he often claimed.
McGilligan does an excellent job of tracking Micheaux’s frenetic pace and his battles with local movie censors about the provocative themes in his films, which often included interracial relationships and the use of the N-word. He thought the word accurately depicted the way most blacks talked, but censors and more educated blacks considered it offensive.
The Great and Only ultimately points out the true tragedy of Micheaux’s prolific career: He averaged two films a year, but many of his earlier films have been destroyed or lost.
McGilligan’s biography is a perfect introduction to Micheaux. Reading The Great and Only, one can only imagine the kind of film his life story would make, and regret that the man himself isn’t around to make it.