A filmmaker's dramatic rise and fall
<b>A filmmaker's dramatic rise and fall</b> Oscar Micheaux was an innovator and a revolutionary force as a filmmaker, entrepreneur and novelist, unquestionably black America's first multimedia champion. But as Patrick Milligan's exceptional new biography <b>Oscar Micheaux</b> shows, he was also a complex, driven figure whose ambition sometimes clouded his judgment, and whose objectives were so epic he was fated to fail in a society that during his lifetime neither acknowledged his greatness nor respected his achievements. Yet Micheaux wrote, produced and directed 40 feature-length films in every genre from musicals to Westerns, romances, gangster sagas and comedies during an amazing run from 1919 to 1948.
Micheaux considered himself a cinematic propagandist, and his productions an antidote to the horrendous images Hollywood was presenting where blacks were consigned to roles depicting them exclusively as servants, sexually crazed hoods or lazy bums. He had no limits regarding concept and saw absolutely nothing odd or unconventional about including interracial romances in films, examining color issues within the black community or spotlighting cruelty and injustice that occurred among everyday people.
But as Micheaux steadily built his film empire, he regularly encountered controversy and difficulty. Milligan details accusations of preference toward lighter-skinned performers and reveals that the celebrated director engaged in one case of plagiarism that had tragic consequences. Still, he also was responsible for numerous landmark feats, among them writing, producing and directing <i>The Homesteader</i> in 1919, not only filling all three roles on a production two years before Charlie Chaplin did the same thing to much larger fanfare, but also becoming the first African-American to do so; and later releasing <i>The Exile</i>, the first full-length African-American talking film, in 1931.
Milligan leaves no source untapped in his comprehensive account, using unpublished letters and financial records, among other things, to trace Micheaux's life, fully documenting his spectacular rise and subsequent sad fall (he died in poverty in 1951). Though he was honored with the Director's Guild of America Golden Jubilee Special Award in 1986 and a year later given a star on Hollywood Boulevard, Micheaux's remarkable contributions remain unknown to even many hardcore film buffs. Fortunately, Milligan's seminal work at least begins the process of getting him the attention and respect he deserves.
<i>Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville</i> City Paper <i>and other publications.</i>