Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only and Every Step a Struggle
Reviewed by Cynthia Miller

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker
by Patrick McGilligan. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. 402 pp., illus. Hardcover: $29.95.

Every Step a Struggle: Interviews with Seven Who Shaped the African-American Image in Movies.
by Frank Manchel. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2007. 495 pp., illus. Hardcover: $42.00 and Paperback: $28.00.

Images of African Americans have played an integral part in American film since the silent era, and, as such, carry a long, complex history that has been often overlooked or oversimplified. While isolated examinations were occasionally published, such as V.J. Jerome’s The Negro in Hollywood Films (1950), and James Murray’s To Find an Image: Black Films from Uncle Tom to Superfly (1973), detailed studies of African-American images and influences in the film industry only gained momentum in the 1990s, as scholarly interest in black social history merged with studies of popular culture and film. Race films, role stereotyping, and discrimination on both sides of the camera—along with their social, economic, and creative impacts—became the focus of numerous volumes, from Black Cinema Treasures, Lost and Found (1991), to the seminal Slow Fade to Black (1993), to such titles as White Screens, Black Images (1994), and African American Films Through 1959 (1998), among others. With these socio-historical overviews as a foundation, scholarship on the African-American image in film has taken several steps deeper into the frame, focusing on the works and voices of the individuals who shaped that image, and seeking a deeper understanding of how the historical narrative of African Americans in cinema has unfolded.

One such exploration is Patrick McGilligan’s Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only (2007). McGilligan, whose biographies of such notables as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and George Cukor have earned critical, scholarly, and popular acclaim, presents a painstakingly researched look at the complexities, contradictions, and lingering questions surrounding the life of America’s first black filmmaker, and a central figure in race films, from 1919-1947. While a host of previous books have examined various aspects of Micheaux’s cinematic career, McGilligan’s biography weaves together the great successes and disastrous failures that colored Micheaux’s life, in ways that not only celebrate his professional contributions but also highlight both the bravado and faltering in his humanity.

Little about Micheaux’s life was straightforward or easily dismissed. A young man full of wanderlust, he shoveled coal and shined shoes before roaming about the country as a Pullman porter. He was a failed homesteader: beaten down by financial woes, betrayals, a stillborn child, and a painfully broken marriage. And yet, it was his autobiographical novels based on those experiences that led to his success as an author and filmmaker and the ultimate reinvention of his career, self-image, and conceptualization of his role as a force in the black community. McGilligan’s work fills significant gaps in our understanding of not only these early years in Micheaux’s life, but the peaks and valleys to which they later led.

Nearly a full third of McGilligan’s volume is devoted to these early years, while the remainder of the book offers a chronological examination of Micheaux’s films, clustered together, a few years at a time. This strategy offers the author significant opportunity to discuss, in depth, the uncertainties surrounding Micheaux’s forty-odd films, both in actual numbers, and in circumstance—con games, arrests, bankruptcies, strained relationships—that are often excluded from discussions of his work. Within these chapters, McGilligan provides a comprehensive, if somewhat sentimental, examination of these relationships and events, often preferring to rationalize, romanticize, or tacitly excuse Micheaux’s conniving, advantage-taking, and limited craftsmanship as a filmmaker. Micheaux is cast, with a very subtle hand, as a victim of circumstance—those of his own making and his era, as well as of the prejudices of film critics, and of writers of the Harlem Renaissance—rather than with the full force of his own shortcomings. His darker side, including the incontestable plagiarism of some 200 pages pilfered from novelist Charles W. Chestnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars in his final novel, The Masquerade,is noted, given a bit of speculation, and largely excused. McGilligan cites scholar J. Ronald Green as declaring, “I wouldn’t be quite so critical about it… I would tend to look at is as a major folk artist being drawn repeatedly to a story and accomplishment that he admired, but wanted to do some work on.”

While McGilligan has elsewhere (see, for example, Phillip Lopate’s 2007 review in The New York Times Book Review) been criticized for this presentation, and for the recasting of a savvy entrepreneur as a naïve “folk artist,” this approach might more effectively be seen as creating a more richly nuanced delineation of Micheaux’s actions—desperation at the loss of creativity, insecurity in response to prior criticism, fear of concluding what truly was a path breaking career—not merely a fraud, but a frightened, multidimensional man. McGilligan continually rises to the defense of Micheaux’s work, rationalizing flaws, and relocating blame that other critics have placed squarely on Micheaux’s shoulders.

This, more sympathetic, perspective is the latest addition to the many layers of sentiment that surround the director and his work. Critic J. Hoberman, for example, cites Micheaux alternately as the “baddest” and the “most significant” American director, calling him “a filmmaker of fantastic tenacity” in a 2008 Village Voice article. Hoberman’s analysis of Micheaux’s work focuses on his idiosyncratic interpretations of standard Hollywood fare and locates his films within the avant-garde tradition. Other scholars, such as Jane Gaines, disagree with Hoberman’s vision of Micheaux, seeing the filmmaker not as an American original, but as merely playing “fast and loose” in his emulations of the classic Hollywood style. Some of Micheaux’s actors—Lorenzo Tucker, Bea Freeman, and Walter Richardson—were quick to note Micheaux’s lack of education, chicanery, bad scripts, and low production values. Yet in the same breath they applauded his creativity, determination, work ethic, and the climate of respect that surrounded him. Taken together, all of these perspectives create a complex picture of a filmmaker worthy of continued thought. McGilligan’s volume will undoubtedly serve to draw additional critical attention to Micheaux’s life and work, adding depth to our growing understanding of the filmmaker known as “the dean of race movies.”

Frank Manchel’s unique volume, Every Step a Struggle: Interviews with Seven Who Shaped the African-American Image in Movies, provides another look at important figures in African-American film history Manchel, a central figure in the field of film studies, has over seventeen books and numerous articles to his credit, including the four-volume work, Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography. In Every Step a Struggle, he offers an unprecedented collection of interview transcriptions and analyses that align film with American cultural politics of the 1960s, as his participants—each, important figures in films offering images of African Americans—relate their perspectives on stereotypes in film imagery and the effects of the civil rights movement on the trajectory of African-American film history.

In his introduction, Manchel deftly contextualizes the interviews, and the volume’s mission, within the framework of the changing image-politics of the twentieth century. For the first half of that century, cinematic images were a key source of predictable social learning. Values, ideologies, stereotypes, were largely consistent, mainstream, reassuring, and unchallenged. With the breakup of the studio system in the 1950s, followed closely by the onset of the civil-rights movement, and the abandonment of the crippling Motion Picture Production Code of the 1960s, content, voices, and consequences in American films became unpredictable. Audiences in the 1960s and beyond were asked, with increasing frequency, to question received social learning, reevaluate stereotypes, and consider the voices and arguments of the counterculture. Films such as A Raisin in the Sun (1961), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and The Learning Tree (1969), along with countless others, brought narratives of racial injustice to the fore, and waged war for the hearts and minds of moviegoers,

With that in mind, Manchel offers the perspectives of seven individuals whose cinematic careers were inextricably intertwined with questions of racism, activism, and revisionism—questions of what perpetuates stereotypes, how artists use their art to respond to social and political challenges—and what it means to be “black” in America, then and now. Manchel interviews a representative array of seminal figures: actor Lorenzo Tucker, who worked closely with Oscar Micheaux; Lillian Gish, the highly sought-after actress who worked with D.W. Griffith and starred in The Birth of a Nation; character actor Clarence Muse; King Vidor, director of “plantation” movies; Woody Strode, an athlete-turned-actor, who was featured in more than sixty films; Charles Edward Gordone, the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize; and actor/activist Frederick Douglass O’Neal. Each of these individuals brings a different perspective to Manchel’s volume, and yet, together, their words create a picture of a moment in history that is, as yet, not fully understood.

The narratives and viewpoints in the volume are complex, and often contradictory. Lillian Gish, ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest female stars of all times, defends Griffith’s racial attitudes in the face of overwhelming scholarly criticism and argues that they reflect the social history of his era. Actor Lorenzo Tucker, known by many as “the black Valentino,” argues against the use of such terms as “black” and “African American,” on the grounds that they homogenize people of color, and further marginalize their individual experiences:

All of a sudden, through politics and a few dollars being circulated around, the Negro leaders have instilled into the Negro population that everything that isn’t white is black. Well, there are more colors than black and white! … So why isn’t it that our race is acknowledged as having more than one color?

Throughout these discussions, and countless others, Manchel serves as both architect and guide—reassuring here, challenging there, crafting a framework through which readers might better understand the social and cinematic history interwoven with these voices. Consisting of carefully annotated transcriptions of these seven interviews, all conducted and taped between 1971 and 1972, with contextual introductions to each, the volume serves as a highly significant primary source document, providing extensive documentation and annotation, making it useful and significant for scholarly research, yet highly accessible for popular reading as well.

Considered together, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, and Every Step a Struggle, offer examples of meticulous research on the powerful contributions of individuals to any historical narrative and hint at the research still waiting to be conducted in assessing African-American film, as individual voices and stories are brought to bear on a still largely hidden history.

To buy Oscar Micheaux, click here; to buy Every Step, click here.

Cynthia Miller is Director of Communications for The Center for the Study of Film and History. She is the editor of Too Bold for the Box Office: A Study in Mockumentary Film. She is also Film Review Editor for Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2