Oscar Micheaux was born in or near Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. He moved to Chicago at age 17 and worked as a porter before moving to South Dakota to farm and write. Micheaux's experiences served as the subject matter for his novel The Homesteader. In 1919, he produced a big screen version of the novel, which was the first full-length feature produced by an African American filmmaker. A sometimes controversial trailblazer, Micheaux continued to make films for the next three decades until his death on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Background and Early Career
The origins and personal history of Oscar Micheaux are somewhat unknown, as at least some of the filmmaker's accounts of his early life are believed to be the stuff of novels. It is generally reported that he was born on January 2, 1884, in or around Metropolis, Illinois, as the fifth child of Belle and Calvin Michaux. ("Michaux" was the originally spelling of Micheaux's last name.) He eventually moved to Chicago at age 17 where he found work as a Pullman porter. Sometime during the first decade of the 1900s, the lure of the West overcame Micheaux and he purchased land in South Dakota.
For several years, Micheaux successfully homesteaded among white neighbors and began to write stories, also having an interracial romance that eventually ended due to the prejudices of the time. He was also married to an African-American Chicagoan, though the two ultimately split as well. His general experiences during this time became the subject of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, which he self-published in 1913 and can be regarded as an autobiographical novel.
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 entity, the Western Book Supply Company. Then in 1917, he released The Homesteader, a sequel to The Conquest and his third novel after 1915's The Forged Note. He sold the book door-to-door in small towns and to the white people with whom he lived and did business.
From Novelist to Historical Filmmaker
Soon after The Homesteader's publication, Oscar Micheaux was approached by representatives for a company that wanted to produce a screen adaptation 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 that met his expectations.
On the heels of the failed deal, he converted his publishing organization to the Micheaux Film and Book Company. He sold stock to raise money for his own production of The Homesteader and soon began filming. When he was finished, the project, which depicted black life in the West, became what is believed to be the first feature-length film made by an African-American creator. The Homesteader was released in Chicago in February 1919, launching Micheaux's screen career.
Provocative 'Within Our Gates'
Micheaux's movies were known as "race" films—made by black filmmakers, with an all-black cast for black audiences. These projects were a reaction, and a necessity, to what was then a segregated Hollywood industry and a segregated society. However, although Micheaux's work emulated standard genres such as mysteries, gangster flicks and Westerns, his projects also addressed pushbutton issues and were not wholly embraced by his peers.
Micheaux's second film, 1920's Within Our Gates, was his response to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, one of the most popular movies at the time that also glorified the racial hatred group the Ku Klux Klan. Gates attempted to challenge Nation's message by showcasing more realistic ideas around white supremacy. In the movie, a biracial teacher Sylvia Landry goes North to raise funds for a school attended by African-American sharecroppers amidst a romantic subplot. Gates was highly disturbing in its themes, showcasing the lynching of black innocents, the near rape of the main character and a subservient preacher who secretly laments that he's selling out his race.
Additional Works and Controversies
Over the next three decades of what would prove to be a prolific career, Micheaux made more than 40 movies, though a bulk of the films were later lost. Some of his go-to actors included his second wife Alice B. Russell, Lorenzo Tucker and Bee Freeman. And the filmmaker worked with Paul Robeson in what was the actor's screen debut, 1925's Body and Soul.
Micheaux had more big accomplishments as well: He ventured into sound with 1931's The Exile, the first black filmmaker to do so, while 1948's Betrayal, Micheaux's last film, was the first African American-produced movie to open in white theaters. Other Micheaux works included Easy Street (1930), Swing! (1938) and The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940), with the latter drama featuring James Earl Jones's father Robert Earl Jones.
Micheaux was a domineering presence on set and no-holds-barred salesperson who was able to get his films financed even during economically shaky times and bankruptcy. Critics have asserted that the quality of his work was often glaringly subpar, while others are quick to point out that this was due to the filmmaker toiling on a shoestring budget outside of traditional studios. Micheaux has also been seen by some as perpetuating a different type of stereotype with his emphasis on affluent, often lighter-skinned African-American figures while handling content that was nonetheless progressive.
Final Years and Honors
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 Kansas. The inscription on his gravestone reads, "A Man Ahead of His Time."
In 1986 the Directors Guild of America posthumously named Micheaux a recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award. The following year he received a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. A general audience book on his life was released two decades later—Oscar Micheaux, The Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker, by Patrick McGilligan.
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