Brother, Can You Spare a Dream?

November 23, 2010

Episode 4 of TCM’s wonderful “Moguls and Movie Stars” documentary series focuses on the 1930s, specifically the challenges that the industry faced changing over from silent films to sound, from the depression, and from the changing business climate in America.

Two personalities stood out to me, one (Harry Cohn) I knew well, personally and professionally, and one pioneer (Oscar Micheaux) that I am embarrassed to say that I had not even heard of before.

Oscar Micheaux was known as the father of African-American cinema. He was the first African-American to ever direct a feature length film (The Homesteader in 1920) and he went on to blaze a distinctive path throughout the 44 films of his illustrious career. Micheaux made a conscious and passionate effort through his films to present African-Americans in a completely different context from many of the films that had been made to date, particularly the overtly prejudicial attitudes of Birth of a Nation, which, seen in retrospect, is a shockingly racist film.  In fact, Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates is considered to be a direct refutation of the racial stereotyping in Birth of a Nation. Perhaps Micheaux’s best known film was Body and Soul in 1924 in which he introduced the world to Paul Robeson.

Today, the Producers Guild of America presents an annual award in Micheaux’s name, calling him “the most prolific black – if not most prolific independent – filmmaker in American cinema.”

Micheaux also has a well-deserved star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. For those of you who visit Hollywood someday, the Walk of Fame stretches much of the length of Hollywood Boulevard and is really a wonderful and nostalgic experience. Initiated in 1960, Hollywood’s Chamber of Commerce has been immortalizing Hollywood’s greats by placing their names in a middle of a star every couple of feet or so as you walk down the legendary boulevard. If you want to find your own favorite star, the Chamber’s website will give you the exact location. Micheaux’s star is located at 6721 Hollywood Blvd.

Tomorrow: Harry Cohn, one of the most hated men in the history of Hollywood, and one whose nastiness I experienced firsthand… the age of 4.

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