Tyler Perry’s Role Model: Pioneering Black Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux

Tim Gray
·5-min read

Tyler Perry is Variety‘s 2020 Showman of the Year. For the full cover story, click here.

Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering Black filmmaker who wrote, directed and produced movies from 1919 through 1948, was a one-man studio — the Tyler Perry of his day. And like Perry, he had to overcome overwhelming odds, systemic racism and many other obstacles to make sure his work was funded and distributed. As Perry tells Variety, “Had it not been for an Oscar Micheaux, there certainly couldn’t be a Tyler Perry.”

So it’s fitting that Perry is planning a biopic for HBO on the 20th-century film pioneer. He says the wheels of development are slow on the project, but “it’s moving forward. Our lives are parallel in so many ways — the way he wrote his books, told his stories, carried his own films to different theaters, and just his tenacity and his believing and investing in himself,” Perry explains. “So it means a great deal to be able to stand in those shoes. I’m looking forward to it.”

In 1926, Variety hailed Micheaux as “the best known and most prolific” Black filmmaker at the time. Among his milestones: the first feature film and the first all-sound movie to spotlight Black talent in front of and behind the camera. Micheaux, who died in 1951 at the age of 67, appeared regularly in the pages of Variety during the 1920s through ’40s. He wasn’t as well known as mainstream Hollywood filmmakers during that period, but his name was a major selling point to Black audiences. He made his film debut as a writer-director in 1919, adapting his own novel “The Homesteader.” He was first mentioned in Variety six years later.

In 1923, he shot “The House Behind the Cedars” about a mixed-race marriage; the film was revived in 1925 to capitalize on a highly publicized mixed-race divorce case of New York socialites, the Rhinelanders. On May 13, 1925, Variety reported that “House Behind the Cedars” was doing “turnaway business at each [movie] house, with Micheaux lamenting the lack of more prints and finding it necessary to use a motorcycle in shifting the picture from house to house.”

In those days, major theater chains — like Fox, Loews, Paramount, RKO and Warners — showed product from their respective studios, plus occasional indie fare. If Black audiences wanted to see mainstream Hollywood movies, they were relegated to the balcony, while white people sat on the main floor — they never intermingled. In general, “race movies,” as films with Black talent were called in the early decades of the film industry, played in segregated theaters throughout the U.S.

Micheaux not only wrote, produced and directed his films; he also promoted and distributed them “by personally knocking on theater doors across the country,” Variety reported. With his films, he fought to correct Hollywood’s negative stereotypes; aside from mixed marriages, he tackled such taboo subjects as judicial and racial prejudice, lynching, poverty and Black people passing for white. To his fans, he was a major force, and “An Oscar Micheaux Production” was printed large on movie posters.

In 1993, decades after his death, Variety carried an appreciation under the headline, “He found a way, then led the way,” a perfect summation of Micheaux’s work. The story recaps how such films as “Birthright” (1924), “The Spider’s Web” (1927) and “Wages of Sin” (1929) were shot in 10 days on budgets from $10,000 to $20,000.

When Micheaux was making films, Variety regularly reported on his progress, such as his first feature-length talking film in 1931, “The Exile,” and a talking short the same year, “Darktown Revue.” There were also “A Daughter of the Congo” (1930) and “Harlem After Midnight” (1934, advertised as “hot … sizzlin’ … melodrama with music!”). Variety said in 1937 that the musical he was working on would be getting the title “Swing,” to be distributed by Sackamuse Enterprises, and reported the 1939 completion of his gangsters-and-boxing movie “The Notorious Elinor Lee” at New York’s Biograph Studios.

In 1948, Variety said that Micheaux and distributor Astor Pictures were planning a roadshow engagement for “The Betrayal,” meaning it would get a prestige treatment by opening in only a few theaters before general release. That turned out to be his final film. As the 1993 Variety story recaps, “When Micheaux, then 67, died in 1951 in Charlotte, N.C., he was once again on the road, film cans under his arm, drumbeating his movies and books.”

For many years, his films were forgotten; their low-budget production meant that the tech quality wasn’t great, so TV station buyers generally ignored them. Even more distressing, many of the films are lost. The search continues for prints of Micheaux’s lost works, particularly “The Homesteader,” as well as the movies of other Black filmmakers.

Micheaux’s accomplishments have been heralded by contemporary cinephiles. After the birth of blaxploitation movies in the early 1970s, film historians started to rediscover his work, including “Body and Soul” (1924) with Paul Robeson in his film debut; and “Veiled Aristocrats” (1932), a talkie adaptation of “House Behind the Cedars.”

Micheaux’s story has been chronicled in several documentaries, including 1994’s “Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux & the Story of Race Movies” and 2014’s “The Czar of Black Hollywood.” In May 1986, the Directors Guild of America gave him a posthumous Golden Jubilee Award. In 1987 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first black director to be so honored.

Earlier this year, Variety launched an educational outreach program with Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to introduce high school students to potential careers in the entertainment industry. With the goal of opening the pipeline of opportunity to students from marginalized communities, the program was christened the Micheaux Project.

As Perry sums up for Variety, if he had a time machine, he would love to meet Micheaux. “I wouldn’t want to live in that time period, because it was really hard for us. Even as we look at the horrors of what we’re going through now, that was far worse. But I wish I could have just met him.”

Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.

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