EntertainmentHistoryMelanated Excellence! Noble Johnson, Oscar Micheaux & Tyler Perry

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MELANATED EXCELLENCE!

The genius behind film entrepreneurs Noble M. Johnson, Oscar Micheaux & Tyler Perry.

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. — Comedian, Milton Berle

 

Born in the beginning of the film industry (July 12, 1908), comedian Milton Berle said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” And with a career that spanned some 80-years in film and television, one might say Berle was a master of creating opportunities that contributed to his success and career longevity. And while Berle was able to create, open, and stand inside the doors of opportunity he created, people of color were relegated to stand outside the doors of others; the reality of building their own similar doors of opportunity almost impossible.

Closed industry doors, Jim Crow racism, stereotyped role casting, race-based film censorship, lack of funding, distribution challenges, and problematic movie theater exhibition were just a few of the long list of obstacles melanated entertainers and film makers faced. Creating one’s own favorable circumstances—in environments where doors were bolted lock and door knocks were few—required persistence, drive, wit and unwavering fortitude to go the extra miles to build a whole building (rather than just a door) while knocking down the many obstacles that stood in the way.

Noble M. Johnson, Oscar Micheaux, and now Tyler Perry are among the melanated pioneers who didn’t just build doors of opportunity for themselves (and others); they went the extra miles and built buildings—knocking down obstacles and creating opportunities from the inside out. Their journeys, unbeknownst or forgotten by many, are to some degree similar (as with Oscar Micheaux and Tyler Perry) or interconnected (as with Noble M. Johnson and Oscar Micheaux).

Elliott & Sherman Film Corp., D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” Poster. 1915. Library of Congress.

In 2015, disappointed that talent from people of color wasn’t going to be recognized by the Oscars (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Ironically, 100 years before Reign’s hashtag would go viral around the lack of diversity at the Oscars, blacks were literally in the streets protesting the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s incendiary film, The Birth of a Nation. A film which characterized African Americans as savage criminals and heroized the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the South. The film (released during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration) would be the first movie screened inside the White House; and Wilson, in commenting on the movie, would reportedly claim, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

In a time where disenfranchisement and institutional racism was the norm in every facet of black life (now being perpetuated within the film industry with The Birth of a Nation) Hollywood would find resistance in having black and brown stories told through the lens of non-blacks that were untrue or of a negative perspective. Resistance in the form of black independent filmmakers and production companies who, despite their obstacles, would emerge outside of Hollywood’s studios to focus on telling positive stories of black life, with black actors, for a black audience. 1915 being a pivotal year not only for the release of The Birth of a Nation, but for the creation of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company by brothers Noble and George Johnson with the help of a group of investors.

Noble M. Johnson (April 18, 1881 – Jan. 9, 1978)

Almost two years after the first black film company (Foster Photoplay) shuttered, Noble M. Johnson, an actor in the early eras of the film industry (like comedian Milton Berle), would build his own door of opportunity as an answer to Hollywood’s negative role casting and stereotyping of people of color. One of a few notable and highly paid black actors in Hollywood, Johnson’s 6′-2″ 200-pound stature and ambiguous looks would garner him small character roles (credited and uncredited) as Latinos, Arabians, Native Americans, Africans and African Americans, but never as a leading man. Under contract with Universal Pictures, Noble’s creation of The Lincoln Motion Picture Company would afford him the leading roles he sought which, according to IMDb, included The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), A Trooper of Company K (1917), and The Law of Nature (1917).

Interconnected (Noble and George Johnson and Oscar Micheaux). Looking for content for Lincoln’s next film, Noble’s brother George Johnson (who ran the business side of the film company) would contact homesteader/author Oscar Micheaux to discuss the film adaptation of Micheaux’s widely popular, self-published book The Homesteader. (The Homesteader is a more dramatic rewrite of his first autobiographical novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. A disguised account of Micheaux’s move from Chicago to become one of a few black land owners in South Dakota’s land lottery; detailing his challenges and relationships with his white neighbors (and a particular woman by the name of Agnes) and that of an impious religious man by the name of McCracken who would become his father-in-law.) As Patrick McGilligan notes in Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker, Micheaux would initially visit George Johnson at his Omaha, Nebraska home in May of 1918 to discuss the film adaptation of The Homesteader; but the business venture would unravel over the course of several months. Negotiations stalling when Universal would notify Noble of its perceived conflict of interest with his involvement in the Lincoln Motion Picture Company while starring in Universal Picture productions—Noble would choose Universal (his bread and butter) and leave Lincoln. Without the great Noble Johnson to play Micheaux’s alter ego, John Baptiste, Micheaux would build his own door of opportunity (finding investors, cast and crew) and produce The Homesteader himself. Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the 8-reel full-length feature premiered in Chicago on February 20, 1919 and its success would launch a film-production enterprise that would span throughout the Silent, Talkies/Sound, and Golden Age film eras—some three decades. The Homesteader (1919), the first 8-reel, all-black, full-length feature directed by an African American would premier in the Silent film era; The Exile (1931), the first all-black, full-length feature directed by an African American with sound; and The Betrayal (1948), the first African American full-length feature to open in white theaters premiered in the Golden Age film era.

Oscar micheaux (Jan. 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951)

Yet despite his successes, unlike his non-melanated counterparts, Micheaux would have the added hardships of Jim Crow racism, race-influenced state film censorship boards, lack of funding, distribution challenges, and limited theater screening locations across the U.S. In a time and world filled with roadblocks, Micheaux would not only build doors of opportunity, he would build buildings of opportunity. Favorable circumstances that would showcase positive African American talent, in leading roles, in a time where doors were closed and bolted lock for people of color. Persevering and rising above the societal roadblocks, Micheaux would write, produce and direct over 40 films in his lifetime—The Betrayal being his last. And while no copies of his groundbreaking film, The Homesteader, is known to exist, Within our Gates (Micheaux’s answer to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation which showcased white aggression against blacks.) is his earliest surviving director’s piece and the oldest known surviving feature-length film by an African American director.

Considered the first “major” African American feature filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux died on Sunday, March 25, 1951 at the age of 67. He was buried within the Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas, marked by a small metal plate until the 1980’s when his work would begin to be widely rediscovered and acknowledged again.

Thirty years after his death, the accolades for Micheaux’s work and contributions would begin to pour in. In 1986, the Directors Guild of America awarded Micheaux the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award for his contributions in film. In 1987, he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In 1988, Micheaux’s family, friends and fans would replace the metal grave marker and dedictate a tombstone which reads: Pioneer Black Filmmaker & Author. A Man Ahead Of His Time. In 1996, the Producers Guild of America would create the Oscar Micheaux award for individuals who would overcome tremendous obstacles to accomplish great things in film and television. In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service issued an Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp. In 2017, Georgia State University graduates Noel Braham and Courtney Branch would found The Micheaux Film Festival for Indie Filmmakers. (It runs in February, the month of Micheaux’s first film’s debut.) And in 2019—almost one-hundred years after its premier—Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) would be the winner of the Maupintown Film Festival Showcase.

Click here to view films made by the first “major” African American feature filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Similar Journeys (Oscar Micheaux and Tyler Perry). Art Imitates Life. Both Oscar Micheaux and Tyler Perry began their careers by creating bodies of work from their own life experiences. Micheaux would use the challenges of being black in a segregated America, experiences as one of a few black homesteaders in the South Dakota land lottery, and the complexities of his love for a white woman (frowned upon at the time) and marriage to a preacher’s daughter to write several books; adapting them into screenplays and film. Perry, as he notes in his book Tyler Perry: Higher is Waiting would use his experiences with childhood abuse (being abused by his father and seeing his mother abused) as a backdrop for his first play, I know I’ve Been Changed (the story of two adult survivors of child abuse), and for later bodies of work.

You let your past destroy you, or you use it to create something better. — Tyler Perry

 

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – MARCH 02: Director Tyler Perry attends the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter on March 2, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

“You let your past destroy you, or you use it to create something better,” Perry is noted saying. And from his his initial failure in 1993 at the Atlanta 14th Street Playhouse where he would pour all of his finances and time into his first stage play I Know I’ve Been Changed, to his first break to the road to success 5-years later at the House of Blues, since 2005, Perry has compiled an extensive catalog as an actor, writer, director, and producer; receiving over 40 award nominations and over a dozen wins for his work. In 2006, he would continue to impact communities through his philanthropic deeds by establishing The Perry Foundation which, according to the site, aims to “transform tragedy into triumph by seeding individual potential, supporting communities, and harvesting sustainable change.”

100-years after D.W. Griffith’s incendiary The Birth of a Nation. In the city for which the sleeper train car was named that Oscar Micheaux would start his career as a Pullman porter. In 2015, Perry would make Atlanta, Georgia the home of Tyler Perry Studios; acquiring 330-acres of the 475-acre Fort McPherson Army Base to make one of the nation’s largest studio lots—becoming the first African American to own and operate a major film studio. (Universal Studios in Los Angeles, California covering 460 acres, and Pinewood-Atlanta Studios in Fayetteville, Georgia covering 700 acres are two of the largest U.S. studios.)

In a June 2019 BET Awards acceptance speech for the Ultimate Icon Award honor, Perry would tell an applause-driven audience that Tyler Perry Studios was once a “Confederate army base—and I want you to hear this. Which meant that there were Confederate soldiers on that base plotting and planning on how to keep three-point-nine million Negros enslaved. Now, that land is owned by one Negro.”


Tyler Perry Gives Powerful Speech Of Motivation As He Accepts Ultimate Icon Award | BET Awards 2019

For his creation of an entertainment empire spawned by portraying the comical, no nonsense character Madea, Perry would be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on October 1, 2019 to which he would dedicate to “the underdogs” of entertainment. “For anyone whose dreams may be on life support,” Perry told the audience, “I want you to walk past this star in particular and know that I’ve been there.”

Pioneers Noble M. Johnson and Oscar Micheaux, despite the challenges and hardships of their time, metaphorically built their own doors of opportunity; blazing a path for others behind them to follow. On their footsteps, entertainment mogul Tyler Perry would turn the metaphor of “building one’s own door of opportunity” into a literal reality by becoming the first African American to own a major film studio. And as he ended his 2019 BET Awards acceptance speech to crowd-standing applause, he left the audience with a statement that best summarizes his and the lives of Johnson, Micheaux and countless others: “I want you to hear this. Every dreamer in this room. There are people who’s lives are tied into your dream. Own your stuff. Own your business. Own your way.”

Noble M. Johnson. Oscar Micheaux. Tyler Perry. Three men who defied their life’s circumstances and built their own doors (and buildings) of opportunity; film industry trailblazers who have enriched our community’s voluminous history of Melanated Excellence!

View the Melanated Excellence article in the June 2020 issue of C2Change Magazine here.

          

   

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