The New York Times only reviewed one of Oscar Micheaux’s films during the period between 1919 and 1948 – The Betrayal (1948).
The anonymous critic gave it a poor review, describing it as “consistently amateurish”. Sadly, the prolific African American filmmaker passed away three years later at age sixty-seven, destitute and neglected.
Of the approximately forty movies he made (the exact number is unknown), only fifteen remain, all in damaged and incomplete prints.
As the work of Oscar Micheaux has been recovered and restored, such as Within Our Gates (1920), The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), Body and Soul (1925), and God ‘s Step Children (1938), it is becoming increasingly obvious that he was something exceptional.
He took on controversial topics directly, and his films were more reflective of his own life than any of his African American co-workers, including Spencer Williams, George Randall, and Noble Johnson.
Micheaux has become a representative of the roughly five hundred “race films” that were created between 1909 and 1950; movies that were about African Americans and made by African Americans, for African Americans.
An image of a poster from the movie Swing (1938) is presented, courtesy of the Black Reel Awards.
Taking Booker T. Washington’s teachings of self-reliance as a model, Micheaux chose to use autobiographical novels as a platform to express his ideology.
His love of cinema soon overtook him, and he left behind any sense of safety in his pursuit of the art. During a time when the possibility of an African-American filmmaker in Hollywood was near impossible, Micheaux was determined to make films, following his dreams in spite of any obstacles.
The critical and academic reevaluation of Micheaux and his peers is an ongoing process. Despite this, their films are rarely shown and their names are absent from influential film histories like David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film and Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film, which claims African Americans were not capable of making “good features” until the 1970s.
Even those who do recognize their existence tend to put down their accomplishments, due to both aesthetic and political reasons. While Micheaux is sometimes referred to as the D. W. Griffith of black filmmaking, he is also usually compared to Ed Wood.
In Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 short film, What Happened in the Tunnel released by the Edison Company, a man on a train attempts to make advances towards a female passenger. She responds playfully, and he continues to flirt.
As the train enters a tunnel, he moves closer to her to try to kiss her. But as the light reappears seven seconds later, it is revealed that he mistakenly kissed the woman’s black maid, causing him to panic, curse, and hastily return to his newspaper while the two women laugh.
In the first years of American cinema, race was largely disregarded except for when it was used for the sake of a joke.
When black characters were featured, they were often depicted as foolish and comical, and white actors wearing blackface would portray them. For example, Colored Villainy (1915) and A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904) both featured such characters.
Even supposedly “serious” films such as Thomas Edison’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) portrayed blacks in a negative light, while they were merely standing in the background. The most infamous example of this was The Birth of a Nation (1915), by D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon, which suggested that the failures of Reconstruction were due to the African American population.
Before Griffith’s film was released, however, there were a few proto-race movies. Alice Guy-Blache, a French expat, directed A Fool and His Money (1912) which featured an all-black cast and was marketed to the black population. The Railroad Porter (1913) was the first film to be directed by a black man, William Foster, who also wrote for the Chicago Defender. Foster understood the ability of film to influence and wanted to create his own studio to make positive race-themed movies.
He said in 1913, “Our white brother is born blind and unconcerned with the finer qualities of American Negro life.” The outrage of The Birth of a Nation led to the development of the first African American-owned and operated film companies.
In 1916, the Frederick Douglass Film Company was founded. Their first production, The Colored American Winning His Suit, was advertised as a response to certain films that had “libeled the Negro and criticized his friends.”
The Corporation also completed two more pictures about African Americans of high standing, The Scapegoat (1917) and Heroic Negro Soldiers of the World War (1919). The Photoplay Corporation subsequently released The Birth of a Race (1918), an ambitious effort created by Booker T. Washington and Emmett J. Scott.
The film portrays the history of humanity as a battle between man and man, beginning with Adam, passing through Noah, Moses, Christ, Lincoln, and ending with the First World War. One title card reads, “Among the vast throng that listened were men of all races. But Christ made no distinction between them–His teachings were for all.” Although this costly movie was unsuccessful, it was remarkable for its progressive, pro-integration message.
Throughout the making of these films, Oscar Micheaux was circulating the US as a model of accomplishment, peddling novels about his experiences. He was born in Metropolis, Illinois in 1884 to freed Kentucky slaves who had shifted north after the Civil War.
In his early years, he performed various jobs and did manual labor, including working as a Pullman porter, and saving up money to purchase property in South Dakota.
As the solitary colored homesteader in the state, Micheaux steadily earned the esteem of his white counterparts, and documented his successes in two semiautobiographical books.
The Conquest, a 1913 novel by Micheaux, shares similarities with Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. It is written in the first-person, following the story of Oscar Devereaux, a former Pullman porter.
This character, similar to Micheaux himself, buys a farm in South Dakota and creates a profitable empire. Washington is frequently referred to as a symbol of advanced black leadership, as seen in Chapter 37, “The Progressives and the Reactionaries”, of The Conquest, where Micheaux reflects:
Booker T. Washington and the Progressives, with industrial education as their core concept, are upstanding citizens who strive for more rights, privileges, and protection; however, they have not provided any concrete plans to back up their demands and have a tendency to cast blame on the entire white race for the wrongdoings of a select few.
Micheaux expresses his disappointment with African Americans for not taking advantage of the opportunity to own farmland in the United States’ Northwest.
He portrays Devereaux’s father-in-law, a Reverend, as a villainous character who is too proud and desires too much power, and is against the idea of educating or integrating his race. This was the first of several conservative spiritual leaders that would be featured in Micheaux’s literary works and movies.
The Homesteader was a longer, more melodramatic version of The Conquest, clocking in at 533 pages. The story follows Jean Baptiste, an ambitious black farmer, as he faces hardships such as a failed marriage and a father-in-law who is not supportive.
He eventually becomes the first great “Negro pioneer”. Just as in The Conquest, the protagonist falls in love with a white woman.
However, in a twist, it is revealed that she has black lineage and this allows for their relationship to be consummated. The use of light-skinned black characters pretending to be white would later become one of Micheaux’s most persistent motifs.
This is a poster from The Betrayal (1948) that was granted to the Black Reel Awards.
George and Noble Johnson, two brothers, had their attention caught by The Homesteader. Noble Johnson, who was the first African American to achieve considerable fame, assisted George Johnson in obtaining distribution deals with regional theaters. The Realization of a Negro ‘s Ambition (1916) was their first film that brought them moderate but consistent success. It was about black men battling for justice.
The Johnsons originally intended The Homesteader (1919) to be their first full-length production, but since Micheaux was inexperienced, the agreement fell through.
Consequently, Micheaux raised money from private investors and wrote, produced, and directed what became the first full-length movie ever made by a black person.
Micheaux took on the work of distributing the movie himself, beginning with the first of his numerous trips around the country to African American areas, which would give him a P. T. Barnum-like fame.
This film was daring in its frankness towards religion and interracial marriage, leading to disputes with censors and also drawing interest from viewers who had never seen a film that handled such topics from an African American angle.
Having already sold books, he was a master of hype: The Homesteader was advertised as “certain to set a fresh standard for accomplishments of the Darker Races!” Immediately, the African American press lauded it as a milestone, and it was so popular everywhere that all existing copies were essentially used up. This success triggered a wave of race-movie production.
It is estimated that approximately 90 percent of silent films have been lost forever. Especially for independent filmmakers, who lack the means to conserve their few prints, the numbers are devastating.
An unfortunate consequence of researching race movies is the lack of surviving films from the peak years in the early 1920s.
Sadly, the silent-era output of Oscar Micheaux–which was believed to be somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five films–has been diminished to a mere three.
Nevertheless, we can gain insight into Micheaux’s artistic ambition from these three movies. Like other African-American filmmakers of the era, his beliefs were firmly rooted in the middle-class. He used cinema as a means to express his views of “uplifting the race.” In addition to this, he also addressed topics such as segregation, interracial marriage, “passing,” immoral ministers, substance abuse, sexual assault, and the KKK with more frequency and potency than any of his contemporaries. His surviving silent films are the most renowned race films to still exist.
Paul Robeson makes a memorable debut performance in Body and Soul, a highly polished movie by Micheaux, which includes a striking storm sequence. The plot follows an escaped convict who disguises himself as a preacher in a Southern town to steal money from his unaware parishioners.
Those who recognize the fraud are ostracized. This brings to mind The Conquest, a story in which Micheaux wrote of his father-in-law – a reverend – who, in his opinion, was part of the African-American group that desired to attain comfort and privilege without having to work hard for it.
The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) is a tangled mix of racial trepidation. Its protagonist, Hugh Van Allen, is a black homesteader ardently in love with a woman pretending to be white. Van Allen runs into trouble with Jefferson Driscoll, a light-skinned crook whose refusal of a white woman’s affections has caused him to deny his ancestry. When Driscoll finds out Van Allen’s homestead is above a reservoir of oil, his avarice is compounded by his self-hatred towards his race.
Driscoll announces to his henchmen, “Either he will surrender, or I will make him go insane or expire with a treatment.” One of the gang inquires, “…what kind of treatment?” The screen fades to black, and a small flame starts to blaze, growing brighter as it moves closer to the view. It reveals a white-hooded man on a horse, who swiftly vanishes into the night. This image leaves an indelible impression in the viewers’ memories.
In Within Our Gates, one of the most powerful race films ever made, the narrative follows the story of Sylvia, a woman of mixed race from the South who is attempting to raise money for a school for African Americans run by a reverend.
As she searches for donations in the North, she meets Mrs. Warwick, a white philanthropist who is sympathetic to Sylvia’s cause. However, Mrs. Warwick’s Southern companion Geraldine voices her opposition.
Geraldine protests, “It is a mistake to try and educate them [the lumberjacks and field hands]. The money should be given to the most renowned African American preacher, Old Ned, who will do more to keep Negroes in their place than any school in existence.”
Though never referred to as “Reverend” in the intertitles, Old Ned is one of Micheaux’s most sorrowful regressive preachers, taking money from white elites in exchange for keeping black churchgoers from challenging the status quo. To his congregation, he issues sermons warning of how white people’s wealth will lead them to sin and hellfire; to the local whites, he acts amiable and clownish: “White folks is mighty fine!” In private, though, he despises himself, thinking he will end up in hell. “Once again I have sold my birthright… Negroes and whites are all equal.”
In a memory, Efram is encountered–a person who is seen as an Uncle Tom-like attendant to the landlord of Sylvia’s childhood. He wrongfully accused Sylvia’s father of killing his master.
Efram is willing to turn his back on his own people in order to associate with white people. As Sylvia’s family hides to avoid the danger of being lynched, Efram instead joins the mob in the clearing. Suddenly, a terrifying sight appears to him: the image of himself dangling from a tree, eyes wide and mouth hanging open, as depicted by E. G. Tatum with an unsettlingly comical expression. Micheaux does not attempt to soften the scene; if anything, it is made even more disturbing.
Micheaux’s only remaining movie that portrays a large number of unenlightened or malevolent white characters is Within Our Gates. From the advertising for this film showing Efram as a “white fo’kes nigger”, it appears that most of the ire was directed at members of Micheaux’s own race. He was implying that the African-American community could better itself but should not expect any aid from Caucasians.
In contrast to the films of Micheaux, most race films of the era largely overlook the social injustices of the time. George Randol’s Midnight Shadow (1939) begins with a description of a mythical Old South, portraying it as a place of “romance and sunshine,” where “people of darker hue have demonstrated their abilities in self-government.”
Such an idyllic community, however, was not reflective of the Deep South of 1939. In spite of this, black comedies, westerns, musicals, and melodramas still mimicked the conventions of studio film productions of the day. For example, Underworld and Dark Manhattan (both from 1937) featured the same luxurious nightclubs, penthouse apartments, mink coats, and gangster speeches as a Jimmy Cagney movie released by Warner Bros.
The South’s segregated cinemas were the most reliable market for race movies, and New York and Chicago were represented as prosperous black cities with wealthy African Americans living in well-appointed apartments. Edgar G. Ulmer’s Moon Over Harlem (1939) starts with a stunning montage of the nightlife of Harlem, as alluring as the opening shots of Midnight in Paris. Certain race movies have gained a certain retrospective appeal, such as Darktown Revue (1931), Juke Joint (1947), and Cab Calloway’s Hi De Ho (1937), which keep alive the memory of African-American vaudevillians and musicians who would have otherwise been left obscure.
The short film St. Louis Blues (1929) contains the only recorded performance of blues singer Bessie Smith, alias “Empress of the Blues.” Some directors, particularly Oscar Micheaux, used free talent such as dancers, singers, and jazz bands to pad their films.
In contrast to the majority of race movies which overlooked the harshness of Jim Crow and segregation, The Blood of Jesus (1941) by Spencer Williams was a highly popular film that scrutinized the African-American community.
This southern-set drama follows a virtuous woman who is shot by her irresponsible husband, and before she passes away, is tempted to an immoral lifestyle in the city. The movie adopts a divine perspective to denounce the gamblers, pimps, and dance-hall girls, and insists that these individuals impede the progress of the race. To this day, it remains enshrined in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
Both Micheaux’s and Williams’s films were created with the mission of helping the African American race progress beyond immoral behavior, but The Scar of Shame (1929) had a much darker narrative.
This movie focused on a young lower-class woman who escapes an abusive family and marries into a higher-class family, only to be rejected by her mother-in-law. During a shootout between her father’s friend and her husband, she is disfigured, and her husband is sent to prison. This leads her to prostitution, and when her husband is released, he turns away from her, eventually causing her to take her own life.
This film showed that social and economic boundaries were too difficult to overcome, unlike other race movies.
Despite the obstacles that Oscar Micheaux faced, he was still determined to make The Scar of Shame. He had to deal with state censors, and even then he would sometimes screen uncut versions of his films.
Although a few of his films were successful, the cost of prints, advertising, staff, office space, and travel would devour any profits. He was always in debt, and his films were even banned in certain places like Harlem and Virginia due to unpaid debts.
Even while in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings in 1928, he was working on two films: The Broken Violin and Thirty Years Later (both now lost).
He is known for being the first African American filmmaker to make a talkie ( The Exile, 1931) and the only one to make the transition from silent films to sound. Through his efforts, Micheaux, just like Jean Baptiste and Oscar Devereaux, was able to triumph over adversity.
In the 1920s and 1921, the peak of race-movie production, there were only 121 segregated theaters in the US. Multiple black film companies were created, but most of them failed after making just one movie.
The competition from white producers and directors was also high, as they started their own companies to distribute films for black viewers, beginning with the success of The Homesteader. Although some of these movies were enjoyable, none of them had high ambitions.
Bud Pollard’s 1932 film, The Black King, was a mocking satire of Marcus Garvey and his unsuccessful “Back to Africa” campaign. The movie features “Charcoal Johnson” as a phony minister who exploits his congregation by collecting money and pursuing women. Pollard, a white director, also made other prejudiced films, like Big Timers (1945) which starred Stepin Fetchit.
Herb Jeffries, a mixed-race crooner, used the money of a white producer to create a trilogy of all-black westerns in which he starred as Bob Blake, a singing cowboy. These movies were Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).
The investor, Jed Buell, was known for creating novelty films such as The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). Jeffries, however, was not a part of this. His performances combined aspects of Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Clark Gable, making him a hero to dark-skinned children. He later stated that his motivation was to give these children someone to look up to.
The cast of The Bronze Buckaroo is composed of a host of well-known African American character actors. Spencer Williams, director of The Blood of Jesus and famed for his role as Andy on The Amos ‘ n Andy Show, Mantan Moreland, a comedian known for his demeaning parts in the Charlie Chan series (the name of one of Spike Lee’s “neo-blackface” characters in Bamboozled ), and Matthew Beard, who played the character of “Stymie” in the Our Gang comedies, all feature in the movie.
Due to the Great Depression, Beard was forced to take this role despite its negative implications for African Americans. This western appears to have been made in an alternate universe in which the bit-players and comic relief have taken the reins of production.
At the dawn of sound, Hollywood studios began to produce short films with black casts, like Warner/Vitaphone’s The Black Network (1936). Occasionally, they released all-black musicals, such as Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943). Black culture was often portrayed in a patronizing way, as seen in the “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” scene from A Day at the Races (1937) where black children sing “Who’s that man? It’s Gabriel!” to a flute-playing Harpo Marx. MGM began the trend of all-black-cast musicals when they released Hallelujah! (1929) featuring William Fountaine, who had already acted in four Micheaux films.
In Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, Patrick McGilligan cites an MGM press release that claimed Fountaine was “discovered on the street” by director King Vidor.
Noble Johnson, Lincoln Motion Picture Company’s leading actor, made a deal with Universal and soon after appeared as the Native Chief in King Kong. As race movies were becoming less common in the late 1920s, a number of companies went bankrupt. There were a few exceptions, but in the 1930s and 1940s, few race movies were created by African-American filmmakers.
The sole existing print of The Symbol of the Unconquered was found in Belgium in the 1990s, and Within Our Gates was not located until 1990. As a result of his best works being unavailable for a long time, Micheaux was only known for his showmanship, especially his exaggerated advertisements, which showcased “the black Valentino” or “the sepia Mae West”. When he was mentioned after his passing, it was mainly viewed as an antiquity, and his sound movies–where his racial psychodrama increased in intensity and his production values deteriorated–were often examined in an ironic way.
He begins with Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, a clumsily-made imitation of a Hollywood science-fiction movie. In comparison to Wood’s safe, likeable substandard work, Hoberman presents Micheaux’s films as “so profoundly disturbing and whose perspective is so destructive that the Medveds and the World’s Worst Film Festival simply can’t cope with them.”
Hoberman noted how the objective badness of Micheaux’s post-1928 films resembled grotesque parodies of Hollywood melodramas. His later movies featured actors who spoke haltingly and a listless soundtrack, and exhibited choppy editing, no continuity, and repeating sets. At times, it even became surrealistic; for instance, Ten Minutes to Live (1932) was shot with sound for half of it and then silent and intertitle-only for the other half, with no attempt at blending the two. Hoberman noted that Micheaux’s films were so terrible that he should be considered among the likes of Georges Melies, D. W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, and Jean-Luc Godard as one of the major trailblazers of the medium.
Hoberman’s assessment of Oscar Micheaux’s work reveals that it is distinct from Ed Wood’s due to its racial ideology.
He noted that Micheaux, while being surrounded by a racial ghetto, was unable to directly confront the racial prejudice that he encountered.
As a result, Hoberman explains, Micheaux redirected his ire toward people of his own race, displaying a preoccupation with interracial relationships, harshly blaming victims of oppression, and even deriding other African Americans.
It is evident that Micheaux was preoccupied with the idea of interracial love, which is evident in his work. In The Conquest and The Homesteader, Micheaux described his experience with a white woman in South Dakota, although no further action was taken. Scholars of Micheaux’s life suggest that the rejection experienced in this encounter stayed with him for the remainder of his life. In The Exile from 1931, the main character leaves the farm because of his unrequited love for a woman, only to find out that she has Ethiopian ancestry, thus allowing them to be together. This plot device is seen in other Micheaux films such as The Symbol of the Unconquered and The Betrayal.
At the start of The Symbol of the Unconquered, a painful scene shows Van Driscoll, a light-skinned man, being outed as a black by his mother while he is courting a white woman. When the woman rejects him, he disowns his mother and his race. In spite of him being the villain, his predicament is comparable to that of the protagonist, who also is in love with someone from a different racial group.
Both the hero and the villain reflect two different ways of dealing with racism: one seeks to improve the situation for their race and surpass those boundaries, the other attempts to reject it fully. Micheaux seems to be understanding of both perspectives.
No director worked harder to break through racial lines than Micheaux and nobody depicted those boundaries as more ambiguous.
Imitation of Life (1934), about a woman of mixed racial heritage passing for white, was the most successful studio movie with a race-related theme in the 1930s. Oscar Micheaux was drawn to this topic most strongly and it gives rise to his remarkable later work, God’s Step Children. If one believes Micheaux is guilty of “blaming the victim” and “berating other black people,” then this captivating movie is the source of the accusations.
Alice B. Russell, Micheaux’s wife, is presented as Mrs. Saunders in the initial scenes. She is a benevolent black widow who takes in a biracial baby from an unknown female. As Naomi matures, she turns into a troublesome child who refuses to associate with her black classmates, sneaks away to the “white school,” and circulates false rumors about a teacher. Her actions become so outrageous that she is sent to a convent for a decade.
Over the course of the past ten years, Jimmie, Naomi’s brother, has become a wealthy businessman with plans of creating a homestead.
When she returns from the convent, Naomi falls in love with him, but instead marries a man with a darker skin tone, which she despises.
When the marriage fails, she tells Mrs. Saunders that she is going to live the remainder of her life as a white woman. What is the cause of her renunciation of her ethnicity? In the original version of Micheaux’s cut, her hatred was apparently more direct; in the altered version, her distaste is all the more striking because of its subtlety.
As Jimmie serves as a stand-in for Oscar Micheaux, a former Pullman porter who has taken up homesteading, his girlfriend questions why most black people resort to gambling instead of pursuing legitimate business opportunities like white people do.
Jimmie proclaimed that the African-Americans have not taken the time to learn economics and tend to take the easy way out. He continued on to say that it appears they should return to the start and start again due to the lack of success they have experienced. This type of criticism was something Micheaux was accustomed to, yet it seemed especially caustic this time, coming from a movie so bleak.
By this time, Micheaux had become more reflective than optimistic. Just like The Conquest‘s Oscar Devereaux, Jimmie is a young, determined individual who wants to make a difference in the world and for his race.
Unfortunately, Micheaux had to abandon such aspirations when he went bankrupt in 1928. He was then forced to work for Alfred N. Sack, a Jewish entrepreneur who made money in the black theater business.
Micheaux was not thrilled with the white producers who were squeezing into the race market in the 1920s, but Sack’s Amusement Enterprises had a number of black theaters in the South and provided a steady, albeit humble, flow of money. By the 1940s, Sack was the only producer to continually employ a black director – Spencer Williams created a series of religious-themed films such as Go Down, Death! (1944) and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946) for Sack’s Southern theaters.
In Micheaux/Sack’s Swing! (1938), a theater director from Harlem proclaims that they have a bargain to take their all-black musical to Broadway. It’s easy to discern Micheaux’s hurt pride in the director’s statement: “Throughout the history of Colored shows, never has a Negro held any part in creating one.
From Williams and Walker all the way to The Green Pastures , all of them have been bankrolled by whites. No African American has ever had a hand in the money or the earnings!”
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In 1940, following the end of his relationship with Sack, Micheaux resumed selling novels and eventually earned enough to finance his last crypto-biopic.
His first film in eight years, The Betrayal (1948) was met with critical disdain by mainstream reviewers, unfamiliar with his prior work, labeling it as dull, unprofessional, and overly lengthy. The black press was not much more supportive. Micheaux had become outdated.
It is truly lamentable that The Betrayal is nowhere to be found, for it was likely Oscar Micheaux’s crowning accomplishment. According to a New York Times write-up, the movie focused on “an enterprising young Negro who develops an agricultural empire,” as well as “the relationship between Negroes and whites as members of the community as well as partners in marriage.” In all his films, Micheaux had already explored these issues in great detail, to the point of it becoming an obsession.
Micheaux’s The Betrayal would be his last film, and unfortunately it was an overall disaster in terms of both reviews and sales. His dreams of becoming Jean Baptiste or Oscar Devereaux never materialized. As the years went on and the era of race movies ended by 1951, he passed away due to a heart failure.
His widow destroyed all of his business papers and the film prints he had collected, but luckily a portion of his work has been preserved and rediscovered over the years.
Biographers have referred to Oscar Micheaux as “the Jackie Robinson of film” for good reason. He was the first African American filmmaker to have a successful career and make influential films.
Nonetheless, his life and work do not fit neatly into a story of redemption. In fact, his early works were more powerful than his later ones; God ‘s Step Children is an example of this, as his sense of wanting to elevate his race yielded to a sense of exasperation.
Perhaps Micheaux was discontent with himself for not becoming “Jean Baptiste” or “Oscar Devereux.” However, his work is significant because it was created by him, Oscar Micheaux.
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