As an African American amateur writer, blogger, aspiring author, and lover of all things about theatre and film, on this last calendar day of Black History Month–a month where Black Americans focus our attention on the significant contributions made by past and present Black Americans to the United States, I chose to honor the life of Mr. Oscar Deveraux Micheaux in this month’s blog.
During a time when Black people faced various struggles in the Hollywood film industry (oftentimes excluded), Oscar Micheaux made significant accomplishments for the African American community as a writer, film producer, director, and entrepreneur. “[He] is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, a prominent producer of race films, and has been described as ‘the most successful African American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century,’ [producing both silent and sound films.]”
In his book, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, Thomas Cripps (1993) states, “Most early Negro appearances in film followed the Southern stereotypes of the wretched freeman, the comic Negro, the black brute, the tragic mulatto, in keeping with literary and theatrical tradition…to understand the history of Afro-Americans in the history of the cinema is to see a race in tension with white supremacy, in conflict with itself and its own ideals, in a quest to overcome disabilities, and moving slowly toward a viable cinema identity and an honest contribution to Hollywood movies. These stereotypes…were prevalent in Hollywood films up to 1942.” It is noteworthy how most of Micheaux’s novels and films centered around the social oppression of Black people during this time. Hollywood was not equipped or interested in producing films for African Americans, so, independently, Oscar worked outside of Hollywood and against it, producing over forty-four films–both sound and silent. His first film, The Homesteader, was produced in 1919, and his last, The Betrayal, in 1948. He also has seven novels to his credit. “[His] life and career can be divided into three phases: his years as homesteader and novelist (1910-1917); his years making silent films (1918-1930); and his years as a maker of sound films and as a novelist (1931-1948).”
DJ Spooky, a.k.a. Paul D. Miller, continues by informing us how “…there was generally deep segregation in the [film] industry…Black creators [were] largely relegated to the sidelines, and Black performers largely forced to conform to, and thus reinforce, stereotypes in major Hollywood films throughout the 20th century… A genre of films known as Race films became popular. These films featured Black actors and were shown primarily to Black audiences. Many Black filmmakers during this time were able to independently produce and distribute films that focused on the everyday life of what it meant to be Black in America. [They] used this medium to combat stereotypes and set the tone for an independent Black cinema.” This is where Oscar Micheaux would have an impact.
Born in 1884, the 5th child of 13, to Calvin S. and Belle Michaux in Metropolis, IL, Oscar’s father was born a slave in Kentucky… The best schools were available there and Oscar received his basic education. Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor, (1999) writes in her book, Oscar Micheaux: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker: a Biography, “Micheaux grew up during a transitional period for African Americans. Some of the four million freedmen benefitted from post-Civil War programs, but many struggled with poverty, bigotry, denial of franchise privileges, lack of access to education, and continuing oppression by a sharecropping system that replaced a legacy of slavery. [Most] looked to a small group of leaders for guidance and inspiration, and Booker T. Washington was the most influential African American at that time…He was the epitome of success, had risen from poverty and slavery to build a great school, and [became] a power broker and adviser to presidents.” Surely, his mother’s deep religious beliefs and Bible teachings, coupled with the Washingtonian values of success through hard work, thrift, and economic ambition are what helped Oscar Micheaux face, yet overcome the varied challenges he did as he strove to become a prominent Black filmmaker.
As Micheaux grew, his journey took several paths. Discontented with local Black culture, and against his parents’ wishes, in 1901, he moved to Chicago with his brother, where he experienced “the good life.” He rented his own place and began to make and save money. He worked various jobs from the stockyards to the steel mills, [and as a shoeshine boy in a barbershop.]” However, the job that most appealed to him and changed his life was working as a Pullman porter for the Southern Illinois Railways. In this job, he was able to travel and meet many affluent upper-class White people. He enjoyed hearing their stories because it kept him abreast of all the latest happenings. In addition, as his train route took him through the Western states in the U.S, he discovered a liking for it. Micheaux’s worldview expanded, he was able to save money, and eventually, he became a homesteader in South Dakota.
Patrick McGilligan, in his book, Micheaux, The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker (2009) concludes, “In his time, [Micheaux] became as famous—and controversial—as anyone in the field of so-called ‘race pictures.’ [He was] a self-made man who lived the American dream [and] boasted a record of undeniable achievement in spite of the obstacles erected against his race… He was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law… [Micheaux’s films] were among the first films in history to attack lynching’s, segregated housing, gambling rackets, corrupt preachers, domestic abuse, criminal profiling by police, and all kinds of racial inequities.”
Micheaux founded and was president of the Micheaux Film and Book Company (1920). Some of his films have been found and restored. His 1920 film, Within Our Gates—a race film response to racism–is available for viewing on YouTube or other streaming services. Three novels are available for download on Kindle: The Homesteader, The Conquest, and The Forged Note. There is an Oscar Micheaux Committee website where one can view a list of Micheaux’s novels and films, as well as a list of books written about him. Two of his films have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925). An annual Oscar Micheaux Film and Book Festival is held in Gregory, South Dakota, where they honor the life and films of the African American homesteader and filmmaker.
So, in the spirit of Phil. 2:3 (HCSB), which states, “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves,” I want to thank the Lord for hearing about Oscar Micheaux. I am inspired by his story. His bravery to discover and use his gift at such a time when oppression, suppression, rejection, ridicule, and cruel treatment of Black people was at an all-time high is remarkable. Blacks were only recently freed from slavery, thus not seen as very significant at all. He blazed a trail for other African American actors, writers, and filmmakers. Now, African Americans are prominent on and off the Hollywood screen. We are writing books, and producing and directing films and theatre productions that speak to our experience in America and around the world. I’m excited to understand, as Micheaux did, that I can effect change through the written word. Against any odds, I can complete my first book, and, possibly, who knows, the film or play that’s been on my heart. You can too!
Americans, be inspired, you’ve made, and are making significant strides in race relations. African Americans, be inspired; while the struggle continues, we’ve made, and are making more headway. Human beings, be inspired because “trouble don’t last aways.” Thanks, Mr. Micheaux!
Be blessed until next time…
Cripps, T. (1993). Slow fade to black: The Negro in American film, 1900-1942. Oxford: Oxford University Press. New Yor, NY. (pp. 7, 11).
Bowser, P., Gaines, J, Musser, Eds, C. (2001). Oscar Micheaux & His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era, Indianan University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
Miller, Paul D. a.k.a D.J. Spooky. (January 2021). Race Films: The Black Film Industry That Told Black Stories in Cinema’s Earliest Days. Retrieved from https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/race-movies/
 VanEpps-Taylor, B. C. (1999). Oscar Micheaux, A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker [May 28, 1999]. Dakota West Books, Rapid City, SD.
McGilligan, P. (2009). Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. United Kingdom: HarperCollins. pp. 2-3.