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"Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny."
1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Oscar Devereaux Micheaux was born on January 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. The fifth child of former slaves, Micheaux spent the majority of his youth in Great Bend, Kansas, before moving to Chicago at age 17. There, Micheaux found work as a Pullman porter. In 1906, however, the lure of the West overcame him and he purchased land in South Dakota.
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.
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. The deal fell through, however, when the company would not agree to let Micheaux direct the film, nor commit to a budget for the film that met his expectations.
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 an African 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. However, 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.
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From stereotypical roles as maids and cooks to Academy Award-winning performances in blockbuster movies, African Americans have come a long way in the world of film and television. Early stars like Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel may have been the first actors to win awards for their stellar performances, but modern-day actors such as Denzel Washington and Halle Berry are still breaking new ground as the first African Americans to win Oscars, Emmy Awards and Golden Globe Awards in certain categories. Learn more about the African-American actors who became the first to change the fabric of film and TV with their dramatic performances.
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