Patrick McGilliganâ€™s Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Onlyâ€”The Life of Americaâ€™s First Black Filmmaker (HarperCollins, 461 pages, $29.95) opens a door into a secret past, the world of black Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century. McGilligan, a biographer of Robert Altman, James Cagney, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, discussed his book on the legendary Micheaux from his home in Milwaukee.
The story of Oscar Micheauxâ€”filmmaker, novelist, black pioneer, and shameless self promoterâ€”is so amazing that one wonders how he could have been forgotten more than half a century after his death. Why has he had to wait so long for a definitive biography?
Micheaux has been in the process of being reclaimed ever since the late 1960s, but the reclamation began primarily in scholarly circles and among African-American historians and scholars in particular. It has taken time to bring his legend to the general public.
There are many reasons. Since Micheaux never set foot in Jim Crow Hollywood, he didnâ€™t benefit from the studio record-keeping and public-relations machinery that other (white) directors of his era took for granted. He drew attention and reviews from the black press only, and the black press has dwindled today. The film-critic establishment is still predominantly white and oriented toward Hollywood, so even now critics either know little about him or donâ€™t care. Hopefully that will change. Many of his films are lost; the prints of those that survive are tattered. He had very few prints of his films made to begin with, compared with the films of major Hollywood studios. And Micheaux did not have children or close surviving relatives to speak up for him after his death. That death transpired a long time ago, more than 50 years ago; few people are alive nowadays who can claim to have known him first-hand or to have experienced his films. This is true of many who worked in â€œrace pictures,â€ the bulk of which are lost.
To a certain extent Micheaux lived a flamboyant life, but at the same time he covered his tracks with mystery and secrecy to elude the creditors who dogged him. So even though there were some good interviews on record with people who worked with him, and even though scholars have done a lot of very good digging into his life story and career, there were large gaps and blank areas. Most people warned me that a biography of him couldnâ€™t be written. That intrigued me all the more. I liked the challenge.
Do you like Micheaux himself? You seem to be intrigued by him, but he certainly seems to have been something of a scoundrel. Itâ€™s said that every biography at one time or another must come to terms with whether or not he likes his subject. How do you feel about Oscar?
I like and admire him without qualification, and the journey of the book convinced me of his greatness as well as his likeability. I have written about Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, both of whom have exhibited questionable behavior in their private lives, to put it nicely. I ended up disliking one of them. Fritz Lang, another of my subjects, is believed to have shot his first wife; he flirted with Nazism; and he was a devotee of prostitutes and call girls. On the set Lang was a tyrant who bullied people. Hollywood is full of scoundrels and worse. People are always trying to cheat other people out of their rightful share of credit and money. Micheaux had to cope with racism and poverty, and he had to make his own way in life against tremendous obstacles. In order to write his books and make his filmsâ€”very personal works with brave social commentaryâ€”he had to lie, cheat, and steal on occasion. The very definition of an artist!
Do enough of Micheauxâ€™s films survive to give us an accurate sense of his ability as a director? Is there anyone in mainstream Hollywood you might compare him to?
Only about one third of Micheauxâ€™s nearly four dozen films survive, and those that do survive exist in truncated form, largely because Micheaux could not afford to manufacture numerous prints of his films, and the handful that circulated were diminished by censorship and by usage. His first heyday was the silent era, and those films are the rarest. However, two of his most famous silent pictures survive in fair condition: The Symbol of the Unconquered, from 1920, and Body and Soul, from 1925, the first motion picture to star Paul Robeson. Judging these two films on content and style, they are indeed stellar works. Content-wise because they depict black America at a time when Hollywood didnâ€™t have a clue, and because they touch on important racially-sensitive issuesâ€”from Southern peonage and lynching to religious hypocrisy and miscegenation. Style-wise, in spite of low-budget limitations, they are very sophisticated films, showing the influences of both German Expressionist and Soviet editing ideas.
His casting was as sharp as his stories, and he launched many, many performers from different areas of black show business into film careers. This shouldnâ€™t be underrated.
Micheaux had a very good run after sound came in the early 1930s, and two of his most enduring films from this decade also survive: Lem Hawkins Confession, from 1935, and Godâ€™s Stepchildren, from 1938. The first is an ingenious all-black (all his films are all-black) retelling of the real-life Leo Frank case from 1913, a murder mystery that fascinated Micheaux. He had passed through Atlanta at the time of the controversial trial. And the second was his consummate parable about â€œpassingâ€â€”black people passing as whitesâ€”one of his obsessive themes. Both have flaws; both are exceptional films.
I think of Micheaux as an â€œauteurâ€ before the French coined the word. Not only did he write and direct all his films, (often editing them and making small on-camera appearances too, but many of his stories were unmistakable allegories of his own life. In this respect, too, he was important and unique. I really canâ€™t compare him to anyone in Hollywood. Maybe you could think of him as a combination of Roger Corman and Spike Lee, ahead of their time. I try not to rank or rate people that way in my books, and Micheaux was not only great, he was singular; hence the title of my book: The Great and Only.
A film about Oscar Micheauxâ€™s life would be an opportunity to rediscover a lost world. I suppose the inevitable question is who should play him in a film on his life. And who would direct?
I agree with you that a film about Micheaux would have the attraction of a lost world, and it would give back a folk hero to America. So the lead character would have to be acted by a man able to display genius and charisma as well as human failings. His second wife, Alice B. Russell, is also a major part. Often she was his lead actress, sometimes his co-writer, usually his producer, always his muse. Mrs. Micheaux loomed in her husbandâ€™s career more significantly than any of the dutiful or invisible wives of Hollywood directors.
Someone like Will Smith could play Micheaux to the hilt, Iâ€™m sure. But there are also many young black actors and actresses nowadays, some just beginning to make their names in film or crossing over from pop music, so it is just as likely that a relative newcomer is lurking out there, whose name we do not yet know, who would be perfect. I should add that we are already getting feelers from film companies. Micheauxâ€™s inspiring story of struggle and conquest is a natural for a movie.
Who should direct? It could be anyone from Spike Lee to Spielberg to someone like Taylor Hackford, who brought Ray Charlesâ€™s story to the screen and made a very good Chuck Berry documentary. I donâ€™t think the color of a directorâ€™s skin is as important as their passion for the subject, but I think the script would benefit from a screenwriter with the imagination to fill in some of the mysteries of that lost world, someone who can empathize with Micheauxâ€™s predicament living in a Jim Crow world. And that should really be someone either African-American or who can strongly identify with African-American history.