The frankly amazing story of the black D.W. Griffith.
Biographer McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness, 2003, etc.) gives a fascinating account of the eventful life of Oscar Micheaux, the first significant African-American filmmaker, a Promethean figure whose current relative obscurity is nothing short of baffling. Micheaux, the child of former slaves, exhibited unusual ambition and determination from a young age, leaving his home of Great Bend, Kan., while still a teenager to work as a Pullman porter. A handsome, intelligent, well-read young man (he inherited a reverence for education and the tenets of Booker T. Washington from his mother), Micheaux moved easily across the racial divide, striking up friendships with white passengers and engaging them in long conversations about the world beyond his own experience. Micheaux appreciated the relatively good money, travel and prestige afforded by his job with Pullman, but was sickened by the required servility and the graft that was endemic in the profession. He made the astonishing decision to go west and join the ranks of thousands of hopeful homesteaders—overwhelmingly white—and establish a farming concern in South Dakota. He succeeded in this venture, and in winning over his curious white neighbors. These experiences provided grist for his many novels and groundbreaking films, unprecedented in their translation of the American black experience to the screen. How did a self-made black farmer come to publish novels and direct movies in 1919? For the ever-industrious Micheaux, the answer was simple: Create your own publishing and film-production companies. The filmmaker comes vividly to life in McGilligan’s narrative, as the author quotes copiously from Micheaux’s letters and autobiographical works, revealing the optimism, erudition, insight and flashes of self-deprecating wit behind his mind-boggling accomplishments and dizzyingly complicated personal life.
Essential for anyone interested in racial issues and the history of American filmmaking; a well researched, passionately felt and endlessly fascinating look at a singular American life.