When we think of black filmmakers, our thoughts turn to Tyler Perry, photographer-turned-director Gordon Parks, or even to Melvin Van Peebles. But long before Van Peebles even thought of directing a film, there was Oscar Micheaux, who successfully dramatized the lives of African Americans in the early part of the 20th century — and challenged the bigoted thinking of D.W. Griffith and Jim Crow segregationists in the American South with his 1920 classic, Within Our Gates — without any form of support from Hollywood’s studio system. For school reformers, Micheaux’s iconoclasm, entrepreneurial spirit and forceful dedication offers some lessons on the kind of driving forces we need to reform American public education.
At the time Micheaux started producing films, Hollywood had little use for African Americans and gave even less attention to the black experience. Save for the occasional Spanish-American War soldier, images of blacks were relegated to crude, bigoted stereotypes of being chicken thieves, maids and slaves supporting their Antebellum masters against northern denigration of their way of life. Those images became even nastier in 1915 when Griffith adapted notorious (and now-forgotten) preacher-turned-race propagandist Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman into The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s first blockbuster film. The sellout crowds, along with the tacit endorsement of the film by President Woodrow Wilson, helped fuel a period of violent bigotry that included the revival and growth of the Klu Klux Klan as a major political force even in Midwestern and Eastern states such as Indiana and New York.
Stepping in to combat these stereotypes and American bigotry was Micheaux. He was an unlikely filmmaker. The fifth of 13 kids in a farming family who were adherents of Booker T. Washington’s economic empowerment vision for advancing civil rights, Micheaux was sent out early to make his own way. As a teen, his dad sent him into the nearby town of Metropolis, Ill., to market and sell the family’s vegetable harvest. By 16, he had moved to Chicago, where he would work in stock yards, steel mills and as a railroad porter. With a couple of thousand dollars in savings, Micheaux took his money and informal education about what it took to make things happen to tiny Dallas, South Dakota, where he became a homesteader and began writing stories about life as a black man in the western frontier for the Chicago Defender and other publications. From there, he became a best-selling author and book publisher, writing and printing books that portrayed the efforts of Black Americans to overcome official and de-facto bigotry and attaining economic success.
Micheaux wasn’t the first to realize that offering black film goers a respite from the worst America offered at the time could be both profitable and powerful in overcoming bigotry. Just as Micheaux’s first novel went to press in 1913, another writer, William Foster, had started his own studio and movie theater, followed by Luther J. Pollard four years later. Micheaux didn’t recognize that he had the capability to get into the film business until two brothers in the film business, George and Noble Johnson, approached Micheaux about adapting his first novel for the screen. Driven by the belief that he should control the means of production for (and the resulting profits from) his own work, Micheaux successfully raised funds from local farmers to start his own studio. His first film, The Homesteader, would become praised as one of the best films about African-American life and became a beacon of pride for blacks tired of white racism.
By 1920, Micheaux stepped up his game and set out to challenge the very assumptions that far too many Americans without a (detectable) drop of melanin — especially Griffith and a now-near-dying Wilson — had blacks when he produced. The result of that work, Within Our Gates, was decried by whites at the time for its brutal portrayal of lynching — which took the lives of at least 4,743 blacks between 1882 and 1968 — and the terrorism of hard-working blacks by whites. It was such an affront to some that is was banned from some theaters; few versions remain available today. But for African-Americans, the film made clear the terror they felt after race riots in cities such as Chicago the year before — and served as a harbinger of the racial violence to come, especially the race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the destruction of Rosewood, Fla.
What Micheaux did was marry his passion for improving the lives of African-Americans with his entrepreneurial drive and business savvy. He saw what he was doing as both a moral cause — the uplift of Black America from the ravages of discrimination — and economic self-empowerment for himself and the people around him. From his studio in Chicago, he produced more than 44 films, many of which would feature complex characters that portrayed every aspect of black life and interactions with their white counterparts. As Tyler Perry would do eight decades later, Micheaux’s films particularly appealed to middle class blacks, which both guaranteed profits and build and sustain an economic class that turned segregation on its head to form insurance companies, retailers and other forms of commerce.
Given the lack of access to Hollywood’s studio system — in which emerging, well-capitalized, publicly-traded giants such as Loews controlled both production (through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and the movie theaters in which films were shown — Micheaux learned quickly how to be savvy in marketing, operations, and production. He timed the premiere of his first film to the arrival of black soldiers returning home after fighting in the First World War. Films such as Body and Soul and God’s Step Children were often one-set affairs, condensing action and drama to a single take. To make films interesting in spite of their poor lighting, he had to develop new editing techniques. One was the cross-cutting, the concept of alternating the action in one scene with that in another. Film goers watching Within Our Gates got to watch the attempted assault of a young woman interspersed with a lynching, getting Micheaux’s message and the accompanying dramatic effect. And while Micheaux could depend on well-trained actors such as Evelyn Preer and Harlem’s Lafayette Players, he also had to another approach with which Perry would be familiar: Taking amateurs off the street and putting them in films, letting them learn on the fly, becoming confident, well-trained actors on the screen. For Body and Soul, Micheaux gave the lead role to an athlete and lawyer who left the legal field to perform on stage. That actor would be the legendary Paul Robeson.
All this savvy allowed Micheaux’s company to survive the Great Depression even as most black studios and many Hollywood outfits either went out of business or were folded into better-financed outfits. It also helped him leave a proud legacy that helped change the world. By the time Micheaux died in 1951, he had managed to advance the slow integration of blacks in mainstream American entertainment and life. The success he had in catering to black audiences led whites (including the legendary John Houseman) to bring more blacks into mainstream theater and movie roles. Micheaux’s work would help pave the way for Dorothy Dandridge to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, which in turn, paved the way for Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and other actors. Without Micheaux, there would be no Van Peebles or Gordon Parks, no Spike Lee or Tyler Perry. Even Oprah Winfrey, who has become as well-known for her business savvy (even bringing in her talent agent and manager in house in order to avoid giving them a cut of her earnings) as for her now-defunct TV show, has used Micheaux as a model for her work.
One can say that Micheaux accomplished as much for Black America as Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And in some ways, he may done even more, especially for financial and social entrepreneurs regardless of their race or class. He proved that it was possible for anyone to be entrepreneurial, achieve greatness and even change communities and the world around them even if they don’t immediately have access to resources.
And the same steps Micheaux brought to bear in his day must be used by school reformers today.
It will take a collection of men and women with entrepreneurial drive, operational savvy and passion for overhauling education so that all children can succeed in order to take on the challenges of transforming a system that has poorly served so many kids for far too long.After all, reform efforts are wasted if they fail because of bad strategic, tactical and operational decisions. It will also take strong rhetorical and polemical engagement with education traditionalists — many of which are ready to engage in name-calling, sophistry and crude propaganda — in order to win the day. This means being thoughtful and forceful, willing to challenge one’s own assumptions and strongly poke holes in myths, and even using media smartly in advancing support for school choice, teacher quality reforms and Parent Power.
Reformers must also be as savvy with economic, social and political resources as Micheaux had to be in his time. This means embracing what former Urban League president Hugh Price called the impromptu leaders, men and women who don’t come out of Teach For America, may have never been in Education Pioneers and, perhaps, may not even have had an interest in education until they dealt with experiences involving their own kin. This is especially critical. If not for Virginia Walden Ford, D.C. would still be a Superfund site of American public education; without a Gwen Samuel, there wouldn’t be talk about reform in Connecticut and Parent Power movements spouting throughout the country.
For school reformers, it means looking outside the box, looking for hires outside of the TFA alumni circles and putting those who are passionate about and committed to reform into their ranks. It also means working with grassroots organizations and churches, who want to improve their communities and realize that education is at the center of that renewal. And for charter school operators and other school turnaround players, it means putting parents at the head of education decisionmaking and governance. This includes putting parents and families on the boards and advisory councils of charters, and embracing the concept of allowing parents to plan out individualized education plans.
This savvy use of resources extends to the possibilities that can come with digital learning and DIY education. For reformers and families, in particular, DIY education and digital learning offers the possibility of providing high-quality instruction and curriculum that can be tailored to every child’s learning needs and, at the same time, provide those opportunities to all children no matter their racial or economic background. Even teaming up with bookseller giant Barnes & Noble to provide classes and textbooks through a $249 Nook Color (which can then be donated to poor parents in exchange for their commitment to creating classes and tutoring efforts in their neighborhoods) would be an incredible thing to do.
And finally, reformers must embrace their work as a moral force for lifting up communities the same way Micheaux did with his films. As Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone told education philanthropist Katherine Bradley when she began her school reform efforts a decade ago, it is critical to overhaul the schools at the center of the lives of children and their communities. Embracing Micheaux’s stubbornly positive and positively stubborn vision will lead to better schools and better lives for all children, and help our poorest kids avoid the brutality of poverty in their adulthoods.
Now, more than ever, especially as education traditionalists find themselves on the wrong side of history, we need to cultivate more Oscar Micheauxs for the reform of American public education, and embrace the savvy approaches he took to advancing social opportunities for Black America.