Oscar Micheaux was among the most prolific black directors in American movie history.
From 1919 to 1948, he directed more than 30 films — starting with silents, then moving with ease into the talkie era. Turning out a feature film and several shorts a year, he produced, wrote, edited, directed and promoted all of his films himself for a loyal black audience.
At a time when white audiences were still segregated from blacks at movie houses (in California, blacks were relegated to the balcony even until World War II, says director Wendell Franklin), Micheaux, a onetime Pullman porter, rancher and novelist, was able to finance his movies himself.
According to Henry Sampson, an aerospace engineer who is also a historian and author of a study on blacks in the movies called "Blacks in Black and White," Micheaux may have been the creator of the limited partnership in the movie business.
"He was able to sell stock in his books and movies to farmers in North Dakota and Iowa, many of whom had never seen blacks," Sampson said. "He was important because he was able to combine expertise in filmmaking with the business expertise he so desperately needed. He was some salesman."
Micheaux hired talented actors and actresses from the Lafayette Players, an all-black L.A.-based repertory company. Most of his films played at the nearly dozen black theaters along Central Avenue but, according to Williams, Micheaux wouldn't settle for just playing the black houses.
He would go and visit a theater that didn't show black films and he would show them the posters he'd made. Then they'd advertise a special showing of the film at 2 or 3 a.m. (sometimes called a "midnight ramble") and the place would be sold out — packed, jammed.
Lorenzo Tucker, once known as "the black Valentino," starred in 14 movies directed by Micheaux. Tucker described him as a hard worker who disdained rehearsals: "He'd stay up all night and have all the parts ready when we met in the morning to start shooting. He always knew exactly what he wanted."
Tucker said Micheaux routinely showed up at theater owners' offices delivering his films in his chauffeured car. He often left the office with an advance from the theater owner to finance his next film. Said Tucker: "Didn't even have a script, but he'd get that deposit from them."
Micheaux, Tucker said, was always cool on the set.
"But about midway through the movie, he'd start to get a little nervous and he'd start eating starch like it was peanuts," Tucker said. "I finally asked him, 'Why do you eat that stuff?' and he said, 'Because you make me nervous!' "
In the late '20s, black films suddenly began to be popular with traditionally white-dominated Hollywood. In 1929, for example, King Vidor made the successful "Hallelujah," one of his early talkies, about a Southern cotton picker who became a preacher.
Says director Franklin: "Micheaux was a wonderful counterpoint because while Hollywood was painting up white people to play blacks, he turned it around and used light-skinned blacks to play whites."
Micheaux primarily made melodramas but dabbled in musicals and action films as well. Movies like "Body and Soul" (1925) and "Harlem After Midnight" (1934) were warmly received by black audiences. He advertised "The Brute" (1920) as "The realization of a Negro ambition."
"Black America knew about Micheaux," says Franklin. "The black man always came out a hero in the end, just like the whites in the white films. And Micheaux always used beautiful women in his films."
Little is known about his personal life, except that he was a hard-driving workaholic and a dapper dresser and he never drank or smoked. He drove around the city in an expensive car and became a millionaire; then his fortune was squandered.
He died in Charlotte, N.C., and was buried in Kansas among family members in a grave that did not get a tombstone until 1988.