Early movie poster of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”
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    Faces from an early black movie poster, but whose?

    The image of the black police officer with a raised gun was the first to spark a memory. I had seen that image somewhere, but where?

    Someone had cut the picture from another poster and glued it like a collage onto a piece of cardboard. As I combed the box on the auction table with the picture cut-out, I came across three more like it and they, too, were familiar.

    But I kept going back to the man in the gun, and then I remembered: He reminded me of an image from an old Oscar Micheaux movie poster. So I later went sleuthing, not recalling the name of the movie but sure that it was one by him.

    Up-close view of a cut-out presumably from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Up-close view of a cut-out presumably from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Micheaux was one of about 30 African Americans making what were called race films with all-black casts in the early part of the 20th century. Black filmmakers were among dozes of companies that are said to have made more than 500 films for black audiences from 1910 to the 1950s.

    He appeared about a decade after the country’s first black filmmaker, William D. Foster, founded the Foster Photoplay Company in Chicago in 1910. Foster directed a short two-reel comedy titled “The Railroad Porter” in 1912, followed by several other shorts.

    Noble Johnson came after Foster, opening the Lincoln Motion Picture Company with his brother George around 1915. The company produced short films, too; the first was “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” in 1916. Noble Johnson was an actor in Hollywood productions and in his own films.

    Full view of cut-out presumably from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Full view of a cut-out presumably from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Micheaux’s films were both cultural and political in delivering a message that was unheard of in the mainstream. He is believed to have made more than 40 movies from 1919 to 1948, many of them lost and no longer available. Some of those that are available have been restored.

    Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl, was in his 1940 film “The Notorious Elinor Lee.” In 1925, Micheaux cast the yet-to-be-famous actor, activist and singer Paul Robeson in his first film “Body and Soul.”

    The clothes worn by the cut-out characters on the posters dated them, and the grainy look of the pictures indicated that the posters were not Hollywood-studio made.

    Cut-out from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Cut-out from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Micheaux wrote, produced and directed his own films, many of which were done on a shoestring budget and, as expected, were not Hollywood quality. His contributions, though, were not in the quality of the films that he made, but that he made them at a time when the odds were against him.

    He began making movies after the Johnsons’ film company refused to allow him to direct a film of his book “The Homesteader,” the second in a sequel, and give him the budget he felt he needed. He formed his own movie company and made the silent movie himself, the first full-length feature by an African American filmmaker, released in 1919. He later made films using sound.

    Micheaux started out as a writer, living among white homesteaders during the early 1900s in South Dakota and Iowa, where he started his own publishing company and sold his books to his neighbors door to door. He wrote seven novels.

    Cut-outs from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    Cut-outs from an Oscar Micheaux movie poster.

    After D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” came out in 1915 extolling the Ku Klux Klan and denigrating African Americans, Micheaux made his own film to counteract it. His “Within Our Gates” in 1920 offered the African American side of the story through his eyes.

    Micheaux continued his work – even making the 1948 film “The Betrayal,” which premiered in a white theater in New York, and his last – until 1951. He was in Charlotte promoting his films when he died.

    As for the posters, I wasn’t able to find the police officer on a poster, but I’m sure it was one of Micheaux’s.

    Oscar Micheaux's "Temptation" movie poster.

    Oscar Micheaux’s “Temptation” movie poster.

    The woman with the raised hand and the man in the tie were from a poster for the 1935 film “Temptation” with Ethel Moses and Andrew S. Bishop.

    Oscar Micheaux's "Underworld" movie poster.

    Oscar Micheaux’s “Underworld” movie poster.

    The man with the bugged-eyes, who’d just been shot in the back, was from a poster for the 1937 movie “Underworld” with Bee Freeman, Sol Johnson, Oscar Polk, Al “Slick” Chester and Ethel Moses. The man shot in the back may be Chester, who plays a mobster in the movie. Polk also played a servant named Pork in “Gone With the Wind” in 1939.

     

     

     

     

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