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African American History Forum

Oscar Micheaux, 1884 - 1951

1884 (Metropolis, Illionois) to 1951 (died while on a business trip in NC)

Oscar Micheaux is the most prolific black - if not most prolific independent - filmmaker in American cinema. Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced and directed forty-four feature-length films between 1919 and 1948.

"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, the 5th child of 13 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 a legal 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.

Micheaux's 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. Micheaux was firmly dedicated to the idea of art as a didactic medium.

Micheaux devoted all his energy to moviemaking, writing, producing, directing and distributing every film himself. Within a year after his first, he made three more films, earning over $40,000.

Micheaux worked successfully and prolifically, largely thanks to the promotional techniques he had developed in selling his own novels. With script in hand he would tour theatres across the nation, soliciting advances from owners and thus circumventing the cash-flow and distribution problems that limited other all-black companies to producing only one or two pictures.

Micheaux offered audiences a black version of Hollywood fare, complete with actors typecast as the "black Valentino" or the "sepia Mae West." Micheaux saw his films as designed to "uplift the race." In the 1930's, his films represented a radical departure from Hollywood's portrayal of blacks as servants and brought diverse images of "ghetto life" and related social issues to the screen for the first time.

From the start, Micheaux sparked controversy. After "The Homesteader," he continued tackling interracial romance and skin color hypocrisy.

With his fifth movie, "Within Our Gates," Micheaux attacked the racism portrayed in the most highly acclaimed silent movie of all time, D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, "The Birth of a Nation." In his movie, Griffith depicted blacks as lazy alcoholics who raped white women. Micheaux turned the table on Griffith, filming a scene where a white man tries to rape a black woman, using exactly the same lighting, blocking, and setting as the black on white rape scene in "The Birth of a Nation." Unfortunately for Micheaux, "Within Our Gates" came out right after the race riots, which plagued America throughout the summer of 1919. Black and white officials feared further violence if "Within Our Gates" was shown and they forced Micheaux to edit out controversial scenes. Micheaux, however, turned around and booked other theatres to show the "uncut version" to even bigger audiences.

With the advent of sound (with its attendant high costs), Hollywood's move into the production of all-black musicals and the Depression combined to bring about the demise of independent black cinema in the early 1930s. Micheaux, alone, survived. He released his first "talkie, " THE EXILE in 1931.

During his later years, black audiences abandoned Micheaux, having grown tired of his replaying certain themes over and over. Nobody could have guessed how visionary these themes would one day appear.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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