Oscar Micheaux: A legend's links

Leroy Collins

Leroy Collins, age 89, is the star of the last film from Oscar Micheaux. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / February 6, 2013)

"Roy would come to my house and we would sit at the piano stool and run through lines," she remembered. "Oh, I was thrilled, so in love. He was handsome."

In fact, soon after making the film, they married.

And four years later, they were divorced. They haven't spoken in decades.

However, they are likely the last living connections to Micheaux and his time in Chicago. There are no parks, schools or even honorary streets — no official monuments of any kind — that mark the filmmaker's legacy here. Said Doug McLaren, repertory film programmer at the Music Box Theatre: "This guy's life was insane. I mean, how is it you have an African-American silent film director with a life like that, 40 movies to his credit, and still, few people know?"

Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, Ill., the son of emancipated slaves. He lived several lives, most of them epic. The short version: In 1900, he followed his oldest brother, William, to Chicago, where he lived near the Union Stock Yards and worked in the steel mills around Joliet; he then worked as a porter for the Pullman Palace Car Company; he left Chicago to become a farmer in South Dakota, where he found great success (and failure); in 1913, he wrote a self-published novel, "The Conquest," which, like his next six novels, was semi-autobiographical; the success of those first books led him back to Chicago, where in 1918 he opened a film office in the South Loop; his first film, "The Homesteader" (1919) led him to become a mini-mogul, a contemporary of the Chicago silent film scene that was dominated by Essanay studios, home of Charlie Chaplin; he had hits and bombs but remained a leading source of "race movies" — films produced specifically for black audiences.

"I think of tenacity when I think of Micheaux," Stewart said. "A didactic filmmaker who saw himself speaking to a race, instructing them about how they were on the wrong track, pushing ideas about business ownership, land ownership, the problems with black clergy. And you could argue with his politics, or the quality of the films, which were criticized for not looking as good as Hollywood films. But he was a pioneer, and he carved out a meaningful space."

But by 1940, he had spent two decades on the road, hand-delivering to theaters the few prints of his films that he had. So he left the movies to write books — and seven years later, when those literary prospects dimmed, he returned.

"The Betrayal" was meant to be his comeback.

He spent an estimated $100,000 of his own money on it. Stanton recalls "a man who had to lead everyone. He was not one to give power to other people on that set. Very domineering."

To everyone but his stars, whom he afforded rare generosity. Collins, who, like Stanton, had only acted in school plays, said, "The dialogue was so bad I would change it. He would jump on anyone who changed anything, but never me."

Likewise, Stanton remembers only one time when Micheaux got angry at her.

"Roy and I had to say the Lord's Prayer in this scene. He and I are standing there under klieg lights, moving closer and closer, and just as Roy starts, 'Our Father …,' everything just leaves me! Perspiration is rolling off me in waves, and I have this lovely gown on, and now I hear Micheaux screaming at me: 'Damn it, Deborah!'"

They shot throughout the South Side and on farms in Wisconsin and southern Michigan. Collins rode a horse in scenes. Because the film was based on Micheaux's novel "The Wind From Nowhere," that metaphorical wind was made real with industrial fans. Indeed, the production became so (relatively) extravagant, Micheaux even retained a limousine and driver throughout filming.

But that was Micheaux keeping up appearances.

He was a broken man by the time he made "The Betrayal." Hollywood had started integrating casts, luring away black actors, even trying on racial themes in films such as "Imitation of Life" in 1934. Plus, he had spent decades on the edge of financial ruin — now his health was fading too. As film historian Thomas Cripps wrote in "Making Movies Black," his 1993 study of African-Americans and movies, "The Betrayal" was meant to be the kind of go-for-broke masterwork that required a director at the top of his game. But Micheaux in his 60s was spreading himself thin, booking the film into theaters before it was finished, using free days to leave on book tours. As usual, Cripps wrote, "his soaring ambition and racial sensibility far outstripped his technical skills and bank account."

Production ended in September 1947 and Micheaux left to edit in New Jersey. Three months later, he had his would-be masterpiece.

It ran more than 31/2 hours. He did not see a problem.

In fact, he placed ads in newspapers playing up the length, exploiting its racial themes: "Longest Picture Since 'Gone With the Wind!'" But theater owners resisted. A letter Micheaux sent to theaters suggests a director with few moves left, offering to break his masterpiece into three films: "Before arguing that no picture has ever been shown this way, recall that no country had ever employed the Atom bomb until we dropped two on Japan."

He premiered the film on Broadway in June 1948. The Chicago cast stayed in Chicago, which was fortunate. News reports describe derisive cackles of laughter.

When Micheaux went on the road as usual, hand-delivering the prints, he found some success with audiences in the South. But most theaters stonewalled. And critics were unusually harsh. Even the Chicago Defender, among the biggest black newspapers in the country and in Micheaux's corner for years, described his direction as "faulty to say the least."

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