Oscar Micheaux was an African-American filmmaker whose films were a challenge to segregation in both Hollywood and society in general. He wrote, produced and directed more than 45 films from 1919 to 1948.
“Your self image is so powerful, it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”
Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. He moved to Chicago at age 17, and worked there for five years before moving to South Dakota to farm and write. Micheaux’s experiences as a homesteader served as the subject matter for his novel The Homesteader. In 1919, he produced a film version of the novel, which was the first full-length feature produced by an African American. Micheaux continued to make films for the next three decades, until his death on March 25, 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.
From Novelist to 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. 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.
A Prolific Career
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. 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 an African American, and 1948’s Betrayal, Micheaux’s last film, was the first African American-produced film to open in white theaters.
Final Years and Legacy
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.