Oscar Micheaux – Film Maker

“Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”

– Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Devereaux Micheaux (January 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951) was an American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. He is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century and the most prominent producer of what was then known as ‘race films‘ (black films with all black casts, made for black audiences). Although Micheaux’s films frequently emulated standard Hollywood genres such as mysteries, gangster films and Westerns, his films not only featured non-stereotyped black characters, they also frequently addressed more controversial issues.  Through his films, audiences could enjoy a cinematography that was written, directed, produced and portrayed by predominately all black cast and crew.  He produced both silent films and “talkies” after the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors. His films often focused on ‘uplifting the race’. One of his most popular films, ‘Within Our Gates was a response to the then popular release of the film, ‘Birth of a Nation‘, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan.  Micheaux’s film showed audiences that white racism was a threat to black survival, unlike Birth of a Nation which portrayed the existence of independent black society as a threat to white survival (click here to see Within Our Gates – a film far ahead of its time!)
Today, you can still visit his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Oscar Devereaux Micheaux was born on January 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. The fifth child of thirteen children born to former slaves, Micheaux gained pride for his heritage and his culture from the influence of his family.  His father, Calvin Michaux (in later years, Oscar would add an ‘e’ to his last name), was born a slave in Kentucky, working for French Huhuenot-descended settlers. To give their children better opportunity, his parents relocated  for access to better education.  Micheaux attended a well-established school in Metropolis for several years before the family eventually ran into money troubles and were forced to relocate to Great Bend, Kansas to farm.  Increasingly, a young Micheaux became discontent with this lifestyle and rebelled.  His clashes with his family’s lifestyle prompted his father to send him to the city to do marketing.  Oscar enjoyed this work because it gave him the tools and confidence to talk to people and conduct business.
When Oscar was 17, he moved to Chicago to live with his older brother and find better employment. He worked several jobs throughout the city and after being “swindled out of two dollars” by an employment agency, Micheaux decided to go into business for himself. His first business was a small shoeshine stand, which he set up at a white suburban barbershop, away from Chicago competition. He learned the basic strategies of business and started to save money.
He also took a job as a Pullman porter and gained knowledge about business and the politics of society, which would later influence his body of work. When he left the Pullman company, he took his savings and moved to Dallas, South Dakota in 1906, where he bought land and worked as a homesteader, using the knowledge and skills first instilled in him by his parents.  This experience inspired his first novels and films. His neighbors on the frontier were all white. “Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sat at a table with his white neighbors”. Micheaux’s years as a homesteader allowed him to learn more about human relations and farming, a time in his life full of tests and experiments. While farming, Micheaux wrote articles and submitted them to press. The Chicago Defender published one of his earliest articles.
For the next eight years, Oscar Micheaux successfully homesteaded among white neighbors and began to write stories. His experiences during this time became the subject of his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, which he self-published in 1913. Two years later, financial hardships resulting from a regional drought caused Micheaux to lose his land, and he moved to Sioux City, Iowa. There he established his own publishing company, the Western Book and Supply Company. In 1917, he rewrote The Conquest and published it as what is now his best-known novel, The Homesteader. He sold the book door-to-door in small towns, and to the white people with whom he lived and did business.

The Filmmaker

Soon after The Homesteader‘s publication, Oscar Micheaux was approached by representatives for an African-American film company that wanted to produce a film of the novel. When the company would not agree to let Micheaux direct the film, nor commit to a budget for the film that met his expectations, he walked away from the deal.

On the heels of the failed deal, Micheaux converted his publishing company to the Micheaux Film and Book Company. He sold stock in the company to raise money for his own production of The Homesteader and soon began filming. When he was finished, the film, which filled eight reels, made it the first feature-length film made by a black American. It was released in Chicago in 1919 and was well-received, launching Micheaux’s career as a filmmaker.

Micheaux’s films, like other African-American filmmakers’ of the time, were known as “race” films—made by black filmmakers, with an all-black cast, for black audiences. These films were a reaction, and a necessity, to what was then a segregated industry, and a segregated society. Although Micheaux’s films frequently emulated standard Hollywood genres such as mysteries, gangster films and Westerns, his films not only featured non-stereotyped black characters, they also frequently addressed more controversial issues.

Micheaux’s second film, 1920’s Within Our Gates, was his response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and which was one of the most popular films at the time.  Micheaux’s film attempted to challenge that films message by showing that whites were more likely to harm blacks than the other way around.

Over the next three decades of what would prove to be a prolific career, Micheaux would make more than 40 films. He would also accomplish two significant firsts: In 1931, his film The Exile became the first full-length sound feature by a black American, and 1948’s Betrayal, Micheaux’s last film, was the first African American­-produced film to open in white theaters.

Oscar Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, while on a promotional tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was buried at the Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas, the home of his youth. The inscription on his gravestone reads, “A Man Ahead of His Time.”For his contributions to film, in 1986, the Directors Guild of America posthumously named Micheaux a recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award. In 1987, he received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame and in 2010 his image graced its own U.S. postage stamp.