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Tyler Perry to play black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux for HBO

Tyler Perry (Photo: Steve Granitz / WireImage/ Getty Images) and a young Oscar Micheaux (Photo: Wikimedia)

In all honesty, Tyler Perry is a fine actor, though his real forte (aside from surreal drag roles) is playing droll, professional straight men, whether as the defense lawyer in David Fincher’s Gone Girl or as the slightly unconventional love interest in his own (otherwise pretty bad) The Single Moms Club. That’s a nice way of saying that the actor-producer-director-playwright-screenwriter-magnate-shampoo-bodywash tends to miscast himself. So it’s with a mix of joy and trepidation that we at The A.V. Club greet the news that Perry has been attached to star as Oscar Micheaux in an upcoming project for HBO Films. Conceptually, the casting is almost a little too perfect: Micheaux, the most prominent producer of what were once called “race films” (a forgotten part of American culture that this website looked into earlier this year), was a jack-of-all-trades of all-black melodrama, part of a generation of multi-hyphenates and entrepreneurs who sought to create entertainment for the burgeoning, underserved audiences of pre-Depression black, urban America.

Lobby card for The Gunslaus Mystery, a lost 1921 film by Micheaux based on the trial and lynching of Leo Frank. (Photo: Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

His biography reads like a Mr. Freedom résumé of the early 20th century black experience in America. The son of former slaves, Micheaux came to Chicago in the days of the Great Migration; worked as a Pullman porter, a stockyard worker, and a shoeshine; tried his hand at being a homesteader in an all-white rural community; became a book publisher and prolific novelist; wrote journalism for The Chicago Defender, the era’s African-American newspaper or record; and ultimately set up his own film production company, which brought him into contact with everyone from numbers kingpins to cultural luminaries, including Paul Robeson, who made his film debut in Micheaux’s 1925 film Body And Soul. In many ways, he’s more fascinating as a historical figure than as a filmmaker (many of his films are lost, and of the ones that survive, quite a few are very bad) and though he’s been the subject of multiple documentaries and biographies and even had his face on a postage stamp, he’s never gotten the biopic treatment.

As Variety reports, the as-of-yet-untitled project is based on Patrick McGilligan’s 2007 book Oscar Micheaux, The Great And Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker and will cover most of Micheaux’s life. Charles Murray, a writer and executive producer for Luke Cage and Sons Of Anarchy, will be writing the script; Perry will also be one of the executive producers of the project, but does not plan to direct.

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