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An Overdue Honor For Film Pioneer

May 17, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

Oscar Micheaux is hardly a familiar name in the annals of film history, but he may soon have his own star on Hollywood Boulevard. The massive film encyclopedias used by film schools and journalists rarely mention him. There is just one clipping on the director in The Times' library. Even some of the most serious students of film have never heard of him.

On Sunday, 35 years after Micheaux's death, the most prolific black director in American movie history will finally be honored by the Directors Guild of America when actor Lou Gossett Jr. will present a special directorial award for lifetime achievement to Micheaux's niece, Verna Crowe.

Who was Oscar Micheaux? 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.

"This man, who never had the recognition of his peers, will finally be recognized by this industry," explained director Wendell Franklin who, along with director William Crain, chaired the committee presenting the award. "This is creating national history."

Franklin and Williams dug deep into the archives at UCLA's film library and interviewed a number of black historians to learn about Micheaux's career.

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 Franklin), Micheaux, a one-time 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 film making with the business expertise he so desperately needed. He was some salesman." And entrepreneur. 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, 78, 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 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" (Paul Robeson's 1923 film debut, to be shown in restored form at the DGA ceremony Sunday night) 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--he always wore a hat--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 was buried in an unmarked grave in Kansas because, according to Franklin, there wasn't even enough money to return the body to his family.

Says Franklin, who is trying to get Micheaux a star on Hollywood Boulevard: "It's a tragic ending. But because he doesn't have a headstone at the cemetery, we're going to try and get him a piece of cement on the Hollywood Walk of Fame."

It's an ending that might have served one of Micheaux's films well.

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