America’s first black feature-film maker spent his life opposing the idea that there was “no opportunity for the Negro.”
Now, 63 years after his death, a group of kindred spirits is making sure the “uplifting” story of Oscar Micheaux is presented to a new generation.
“I couldn’t believe I had never heard of him,” said recording industry entrepreneur Bayer L. Mack, who a few years ago discovered Patrick McGilligan’s 2007 book, “Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker.”
Micheaux, who lived from 1884 to 1951, continually broke barriers and carved out a critical but little-appreciated role in the history of Hollywood and American film, Mr. Mack said.
Micheaux went from being an Illinois farm boy, descended from former slaves, to a shoeshiner in Chicago, Pullman porter, prairie homesteader, prolific novelist and the nation’s first significant black filmmaker. Over the course of his career, he made and distributed 22 silent films and 15 talkies.
He accomplished this “with no backing and no studio, at a time when the only producers who could get film distribution were companies run by white men,” Mr. Mack said.
Over time, Micheaux has been honored with awards, festivals, a U.S. postal stamp and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987 — 36 years after his death. Yet Micheaux always seems to be in danger of becoming as lost as most of his films.
Mr. Mack said he was especially unhappy that no one had produced a major documentary about such a towering figure in black history, so he set out to remedy that. He added a television dimension to his independent record label, Block Starz Music, and created an hourlong production, “The Czar of Black Hollywood.”
Three of the six segments of “Czar” have been made available on the documentary’s Facebook page, and at least one local television station in Massachusetts aired them in April. A screening is expected in September at the national conference of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Memphis, Tenn.
Mr. Mack and his creative team — including Frances Presley Rice, Hal Croasmun and Nicholas Jones — seek to capture the bustling, heady times of Micheaux’s life and his determination to show other black Americans that “anything is possible,” even under the segregationist Jim Crow laws.
The first part of “Czar” chronicles how Micheaux was deeply influenced by his hardworking, landowner father and his devout mother. His mother introduced Micheaux to the works of black educator Booker T. Washington and the idea that people shouldn’t “allow our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”
In contrast to Hollywood’s mainstream movies that limited blacks to roles as buffoons or menial workers, Micheaux’s all-black casts showed complex men and women with dignity, intelligence, economic solidarity and racial pride. His films didn’t shy away from racial issues, including mixed-race romances, even though some theaters banned his daring work.
His second film, the 1920 silent “Within Our Gates,” was widely seen as a direct response to the racist arguments put forward in D.W. Griffith’s classic “Birth of a Nation.”
He once remarked, “I have always tried to lay before the colored race a cross-section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range.”
Micheaux remained a cinematic pioneer. His 1931 film “The Exile” is considered the first full-length sound feature by a black director, and 1948’s “The Betrayal,” his last work, was the first black-produced film to open in white theaters.
Micheaux’s personal life was also dramatic, with two marriages and years of wealth and limousines as well as bankruptcy and hard times.
Micheaux’s efforts to bring his films to the public were indefatigable. In 1951, at age 67, he “died of a heart attack while he was on the road, trying to promote a film,” said Jerry Wilske, a researcher on Micheaux and board member of the South Dakota African American History Museum. (Micheaux’s homestead was near Gregory, S.D.) His gravestone reads: “A man ahead of his time.”
As a self-made man and an avid reader, Micheaux encouraged blacks to become farmers or start their own businesses and to “be their own bosses,” said Mr. Wilske. “His whole idea was uplift.”