Winter 2006

Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America's First Great Black Filmmaker
(Regan Books, 384 pages, $29.95)
Edited by Patrick McGilligan

Any modern independent filmmaker who began his or her career maxing out 10 credit cards will find their efforts and tribulations put starkly into context by Patrick McGilligan’s exhaustive biography of the shadowy, half-forgotten yet indomitable African-American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. At a time when blacks lived severely restricted lives in Jim Crow America (Micheaux died broke in 1951 at age 67), this ambitious original managed, against incredible odds, to pump out up to four features a year between 1919 and 1940, finally making nearly 40 all-black musicals, melodramas, detective stories and ghost stories, two-thirds of which are now thought lost. Many of them embraced daring topics such as “passing” for white, interracial romance, nudity, sexual frankness, Klan violence and lynching; none were likely to pass muster with racist censors, especially in the South. Micheaux distributed them himself, toting the four or five prints he could afford to the nation’s far-flung black communities, which enthusiastically embraced the only films then being made that addressed their own lives without stereotyping or racial insult. All the while, Micheaux was beset by creditors, scornful reviewers (among many admirers), amateurish performers, and the insults visited upon him daily as an ambitious, unretiring black man. The leaders of the Harlem Renaissance treated him with condescension, perhaps because Micheaux was a self-made striver in the Booker T. Washington mold, his works aiming to “uplift the race.” By today’s standards, his work seems unpolished. But his contribution was so significant that he was posthumously presented with the DGA’s Golden Jubilee Special Award in 1986, along with Fellini and Kurosawa, in celebration of the Guild’s 50th anniversary. Micheaux-related research has preoccupied scholars of early black filmmaking for three decades now, but McGilligan has deftly assembled their many sterling efforts, including disinterred prints and 1970s interviews with surviving Micheaux collaborators, into an enormously moving and compelling account of a quixotic life defined by arduous toil and perpetual optimism.

Review written by John Patterson.


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