Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film (The Homesteader (1919) in 1919) and a sound feature-length film (The Exile (1931) in 1931), is not a major figure in American film just for these milestones, but because his oeuvre is a window onto the American psyche as regards race and its deleterious effects on individuals and society. He also is a pioneer of independent cinema. Though the end products of his labors often were technically crude due to budgetary constraints, Micheaux the filmmaker is a symbol of the artist triumphing over great odds to bring his vision to the public at large while serving in the socially important role of critical spirit. “One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the colored man can be anything,” Micheaux said. He used the new medium of the motion picture to communicate his ideas in order to rebut racism and to raise the consciousness of African-Americans in an age of segregation and overt, legal racism. As a filmmaker, Micheaux was “50 years ahead of his time”, according to Kansas Humanities Council Board member Martin Keenan, the chairman of the Oscar Micheaux Film Festivals in Great Bend, Kansas, in 2001 and 2003. Oscar Micheaux was born in 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois, one of 13 children of former slaves. When he was 17 years old he left home for Chicago, where he got a job as a Pullman porter, one of the best jobs an African-American could get in the days of Jim Crow laws that separated the races and were an official bulwark of racism. Inspired by the self-help, assimilationist teachings of Booker T. Washington and the “Go West” pioneer philosophy of Horace Greeley, Micheaux acquired two 160-acre tracts of land in Gregory County, South Dakota, in 1905, despite no previous experience in farming. His experiences as a homesteader were the basis for his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer”, which was published in 1913. He rewrote it into his most famous novel, “The Homesteader” (1917), which he self-published and distributed, selling it door-to-door to small businessmen and homesteaders in small towns, white people with whom he lived and did business with. “The Homesteader” not only elucidated Micheaux’s understanding of societal cleavages but proselytized for assimilating black and white communities. He was firmly dedicated to the idea of art as a didactic medium. Micheaux lost his homestead in 1915 due to financial losses caused by a drought. He moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he established the Western Book and Supply Co. He continued to write novels, selling them himself, door-to-door. Meanwhile, brothers George Johnson and Noble Johnson, African-American movie pioneers who ran the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. in Los Angeles, wanted to make “The Homesteader” into a film. They tried to buy the rights to the novel but would not meet Micheaux’s demands that he direct it and that it be made with a large budget. After his demands were refused, Micheaux reorganized Western Book and Supply as the Micheaux Film and Book Co. in Chicago. He began to raise money for his own film version of “The Homesteader”. Micheaux returned to the white businessmen and farmers around Sioux City, Iowa, where he still maintained an office, and sold them stock in his new company. In this way he was able to raise enough capital to begin filming his novel in Chicago, which was then a major film production center. The film came in at eight reels, making it the first feature-length film made by an African-American. “Race films”–as films made for black audiences were called until the advent of the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s–and even “mainstream” films had been mostly shorts up to that time. Even Charles Chaplin didn’t make his first feature-length film until 1921, with The Kid (1921). The Homesteader (1919) premiered in Chicago on February 20, 1919. An ad for the movie placed in the “Chicago Defender”, the premier newspaper for African-Americans, heralded the film as the “greatest of all Race productions” and claimed it was “destined to mark a new epoch in the achievements of the Darker Races . . . every Race man and woman should cast aside their skepticism regarding the Negro’s ability as a motion picture star, and go and see, not only for the absorbing interest obtaining therein, but as an appreciation of those finer arts which no race can ignore and hope to obtain a higher plan of thought and action.” His next film, Within Our Gates (1920), was his response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that had glorified the Ku Klux Klan and justified the violent oppression of African-Americans to prevent miscegenation. Though Griffith’s flawed masterpiece was the most popular movie until the release of another Civil War potboiler called Gone with the Wind (1939) in 1939, it was loathed by African-Americans due to its crude and hateful racial stereotypes. “Within These Gates” was made to rebut Griffith and show that the reality of racism in the US was that African-Americans were more likely to be lynched and exploited by whites than the reverse. The movie showed African-American and white communities that the racism of the dominant society could be challenged. Micheaux’s place in history was assured as he injected an African-American perspective, via the powerful medium of the motion picture, into the American consciousness. Working out of Chicago, he subsequently made more than 30 films over the next three decades, including musicals, comedies, westerns, romances and gangster films. Some of the popular themes in his work were African-Americans passing for white, intermarriage and legal injustice. He used actors from New York’s Lafayette Players and always cast his actors on the basis of type, with light-skinned African-American actors typically playing the leads and darker-skinned blacks the heavies. That trait was part of the consciousness of the African-American community (and mirrored the very racism that he inveigled against) that persists to this day, and Micheaux was severely chastised for it by later critics. However, no critic could deny the importance of Micheaux’s movies, as they were a radical departure from Hollywood’s racist portrayals of blacks as lazy dolts, Uncle Toms, Mammies and dangerous bucks. As the most successful and prolific of black filmmakers, Micheaux was vital to African-American and overall American consciousness by providing a diverse portfolio of non-stereotyped black characters, as well as images and stories of African-American life. He married Alice B. Russell in March 1926, and the two remained married until his death in March 1951. He was buried at Great Bend Cemetery, Great Bend, Kansas.