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The Man Behind the Movies

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Oscar Micheaux was a jack-of-all-trades. The grandson of a former slave, he worked as a coal miner, Pullman porter, writer and businessman. But he's probably best known as one of cinema's most prolific filmmakers.

Over three decades, he wrote, produced and directed nearly 40 feature-length films. His movies touched on complex and controversial subjects like classicism, interracial romance and passing.

Here's a scene from his 1938 film "God's Step Children."

(Soundbite of movie, "God's Step Children")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actress): (As Woman) I'm running away, mother. I've left Clyde(ph). You know I've never loved the man. And I can't stand it no longer. I've left him and I'm leaving the Negro race. Oh, don't you look at me like that. I've tried. Heaven knows I have. But I can't stand it any longer. My mind is made up and I'm through.

CHIDEYA: Oscar Micheaux was a polarizing figure and much about his life is only now coming to light. Thanks in part to film historian Patrick McGilligan. His new book is called "The Great and Only: Oscar Micheaux."

Patrick, thanks for coming on.

Mr. PATRICK McGILLIGAN (Film Historian; Author, "The Great and Only: Oscar Micheaux"): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So tell me little about the man, Oscar Micheaux, before he made movies.

MR. McGILLIGAN: Well, he has a great life story. He was born into, you know, abject humble circumstances, really 40 acres and a mule. And I went back and looked at the tax assessor books to see really what poverty he came out of. Didn't finish high school because he went to work. And gradually moved up state through Illinois to Chicago, which was the black Mecca, and eventually got a job as a Pullman porter, which in those days was considered a very glamorous as well as demeaning job for a black man. But it would - and enabled him to travel the country. He fell in love with the country. He fell in love with travel and with the frontier. Saved up his money and moved to South Dakota in 1904 to become the only colored home setter for miles and miles around. And for 10 years, became a farmer out there.

So out on South Dakota, he really has the first important part of his life where he - besides being the only black man for miles around, falls in love with a white woman, has its warded romance with her, instead decides to marry a black woman from Chicago. His marriage falls apart. And he goes bankrupt.

And then in the depths of his depression and unhappiness, he sits down in a winter in a shack, decides to write his own life story called the "Conquest." So he becomes a self-published novelist.

CHIDEYA: With all of it that was going on, how do you think that he thought about race?

Mr. McGILLIGAN: Well, actually he bruited about the subject of race because he understood that he was living in a racist society and that doors were closed to him. And at the same time, he believed early in his life and career in the principles of Booker T. Washington and he believed in hard work and education and uplift and not complaining.

And then he was very torn by this idea of interracial romance because his first great love was a white woman on the prairie. And he was really terrified of what would happen if he allowed himself to fall in love with her and have children because then those children worried him that they might have to pass as white in order to have any kind of equality on society.

And this idea, which he pursued in his first novel and then in other novels, really became the underlying basis for some of the great themes of his films. And he pursued this idea of passing - and the absurdity and the tragedy of passing and really what it is, is an attack on racial categorization.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk a little bit more about some of the themes you mentioned in his works. So, he tried to convey issues like success and hard work, as well as race, in some of his movies including "God's Ste Children." Let's listen to a little bit from the movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "God's Stepchildren")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (As Woman) Why is that there are so many -most all of our men, when they go into business, they got to be a crop gains, numbers bank, our policy shop? Why can't they go into some kind of legitimate business like white people?

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Man) They could, but there ain't no set of economics. They're eyeing success that sticks in line with each resistant. Negro hates to think. He's a stranger to planting.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Woman) I guess you're right.

Unidentified Man: I guess I think too much. Plan too much also. But after getting the opinion of our group, that we are failures, it seems at least you go right back to the beginning and start all over again. That's what I decided to do.

Unidentified Woman #2: You mean?

Unidentified Man: That I'm going to buy a farm and start at the beginning.

CHIDEYA: Now, that's a pretty harsh indictment by the Micheaux parallel character. Do you think that that really reflected his views and what did that whole scene say about how he thought of his social conscience with filmmaking?

Mr. McGILLIGAN: Well, he believed in preaching in his films and he believed in preaching and hard work, obeying the law and education, all of these things, which sometimes he skirted himself. But he says all the way back to when he was a boy in metropolis, growing up in metropolis Illinois that he had those ideas and he would say them to people.

And he would go to church on Sunday and he would be appalled by people who were sitting in pews that he knew he had seen drunk on Saturday night or where out of work and not trying to get work. And sometimes he brought it up and he'd say so even in his own novels. He'd say, sometimes, I'm too aggressive and I'm too acrimonious in my views. And if I were to moderate them and put them more politely, maybe people would understand that all I'm really saying is, go to work, get a job, get educated and do your best to uplift your life.

That particular scene was attacked by the communist party, you know, which had many black members in the late 1930s in Harlem. And often, his films were attacked, and often they were praised.

CHIDEYA: Is his legacy tainted by the fact that he essentially plagiarized themes and plotlines in some of his movies?

Mr. McGILLIGAN: No. I don't think so. I ended up investigating all of his misbehavior and show in my book that, you know, he was, at times, a liar, a thief, a plagiarist. He was arrested. He went bankrupt. He invaded creditors. He would do everything possible to keep going and write his books and make his movies. It's paradoxical because at other times, he's very upright and he's self-righteous and he's preaching morality and good behavior.

But, you know, remember, he comes from slave descendants and slaves were considered legal property at one time. So I think he had good reason to skirt the law. And I think it's in the best tradition of art that he would do anything to continue to make his films. There are times when he crossed the line. He plagiarized his last novel writing couple of hundred pages line by line from another novel and signing his own name to it. He did cross the line and he did it over and over again, and he did it in order to survive because his life was an incredible struggle.

CHIDEYA: So he struggled until the very end. Who was he, as a man, at the end of his life and what was his legacy?

Mr. McGILLIGAN: Well, he spent all of his money on a comeback film that he made in Chicago in 1947 called "The Betrayal." And as I have said, he - his life dream was to show his movies to white people as well and to open a film on Broadway. And "The Betrayal" finally became the film that opened on Broadway and the only film the New York Times ever bothered to review that was directed by Oscar Micheaux, that, in fact, the only time they ever mentioned Oscar Micheaux except in court proceedings and they penned it mercilessly.

He went bankrupt. He died in 1951 penniless, buried in an unmarked grave. And it wasn't until the civil rights movement in the 1960s when academics and scholars started to look into the - this very rich past of race pictures and started to write and research about Oscar Micheaux that, gradually, his reputation began to be reclaimed.

And nowadays, you know, there's a special award at the Producers Guild in Hollywood named in his honor and as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And anybody in black America and in black show business knows who he is. And that's only white America that's - and white Hollywood that's slow to catch up.

CHIDEYA: Well, Patrick, thank you.

Mr. McGILLIGAN: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Film historian Patrick McGilligan is the author of "The Great and Only Oscar Micheaux: The Life of America's First Great Black Filmmaker." And he spoke with us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.