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Illinois, Film, and Mr. Micheaux

Yasi Abernathy
Morgan Park High School, Chicago

My grandmother told me this dramatic story about a friend of her father. The friend's name was Oscar Micheaux. He was a black filmmaker in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was a Pullman porter on the Illinois Central Railroad. My grandmother recalled:

Mr. Micheaux was very much in love with a very beautiful young woman who lived down the street from our family. She returned his love and they were married. They moved to South Dakota and became homesteaders. This was not the life her family wanted for her and they eventually kidnapped her and brought her back to Chicago.

Mr. Micheaux and his beautiful bride were never together again. She was killed on a Chicago street when a horse-drawn carriage bolted, and she was struck by the overturning carriage.

Oscar Micheaux was born in Illinois. He was a Pullman car porter, then a farmer in South Dakota, and by 1955, a self-published novelist. He then turned to film- and movie-making, and that brought him back to Chicago.

Micheaux realized the importance of promotion in getting his films screened. He toured the country to publicize one film and at the same time campaigned to finance his next film. He was impressive and charming. Micheaux's promotional sense kept him in business, allowing him to produce, direct, and write almost thirty films between 1919 and 1948. He was one of the few black film-makers to work in both silent and sound motion pictures.

Micheaux's feature films were similar to Hollywood's. However, because of limited funding, they were not Hollywood's technical equal. Often a scene was shot in a single take as a camera followed an actor. Micheaux seldom had time or money to do retakes. These limitations, the uncontrolled performance, and the lived-in look of the sets, gave his films a haunting realism.

In all of Micheaux's films there is an awareness of race as a force in black life. Micheaux's Underworld (1937) was a gangster film about a black gangster who was a recent graduate of a black college who got mixed up in Chicago's crime world. Daughter of the Congo (1930) was an African adventure story about a black cavalry officer's rescue of a young black girl.

Sometimes Micheaux focused on race specifically. Birthright (1924) is the story of a young black Harvard graduate who returned to his town to found a school to "uplift the race." He meets opposition from some blacks and white southerners who believed that education ruins black people. Birthright is a plea for black unity. Within Our Gates (1920), a film on black southern life, sparked controversy because of the vivid lynching scenes. The Chicago Board of Movie Censors rejected the film because it was feared riots would result.

Micheaux had important roles for women in his films as strong-willed heroines. God's Step Children (1937) took up the women's role and race. The heroine was punished with death because of her fight for independence.

In all of Oscar Micheaux's films there was the consciousness of race. To appreciate Micheaux's films, one must understand that he wanted to give his audience something "to further the race, not hinder it."[Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television; Harry Ploski, African American; and student historian's interview with Helen Nelson, Dec. 10, 1992.]


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