Oscar Devereaux Micheaux (January 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951) was an American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. Although the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced some films, he is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century and the most prominent producer of race films. He produced both silent films and "talkies" after the industry changed to incorporate.
Early life and education
Micheaux was born on a farm in Murphysboro, Illinois on January 2, 1884 He was the fifth child born to Calvin S. Michaux and Belle Michaux, who had a total of thirteen. In his later years, Micheaux added the “e” to his last name. Calvin Michaux was originally from Kentucky, and his father had been a slave. The family appeared to have been associated with French colonists because of its surname, possibly French Huguenots who had settled in Virginia in 1700, and whose descendants took slaves west migrated west into Kentucky.
Micheaux was born during a time of social instability when African Americans were trying to succeed in a world dominated by whites. Micheaux struggled with social oppression as a young boy, which he reflected in writing in later years. To give their children education, his parents relocated to the city for better schooling. Micheaux attended a well-established school for several years before the family eventually ran into money troubles and were forced to relocate back to the farm. Unhappy, Micheaux became rebellious and discontented. His struggles caused internal problems within his family. Micheaux’s father was not happy with him and sent him away to do marketing within the big city. Micheaux found pleasure in this job because he was able to speak to many new people and learned many people skills that he would later reflect within his films.
When Micheaux was 16 years old, he moved to Chicago, Illinois to live with his brother, who was then working as a waiter. Micheaux became dissatisfied with what he viewed as his brother’s way of living “the good life”, so he rented his own place and found a job in the stockyards, which he found difficult. Micheaux worked many different jobs, moving from the stockyards to the steel mills.
After Micheaux was “swindled out of two dollars” by an employment agency, he decided to become his own boss. His first business was a small shoeshine stand, which he set up at a white suburban barbershop, away from Chicago competition. Micheaux learned the basic strategies of business and started to save money. He became a Pullman porter on the major railroads. At that time, Pullman porters were considered prestigious jobs for African-Americans, as they were relatively well-paid, secure and gave freedom of travel and acquaintance. This job was an informal college education for Micheaux. He profited financially, and also gained contacts and knowledge about the world through traveling, as well as a greater understanding for business. When he left the position, Micheaux had seen much of the United States, had a couple thousand dollars saved in his bank account, and made a number of connections with wealthy white people that would prove to be to his benefit in future endeavors.
After working as a porter, Micheaux worked as a homesteader in Dallas, South Dakota. This experience inspired his first novels and films. His neighbors on the frontier were all white. “Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sate at table with his white neighbors”. Micheaux’s years as a homesteader allowed him to learn more about human relations and farming, a time in his life full of tests and experiments. While farming, Micheaux wrote articles and submitted them to press. The Chicago Defender published one of his earliest articles.
Marriage and family
In South Dakota, Micheaux married Orlean McCracken, whose family proved to be complex and burdensome. Orlean became unhappy with their living arrangements and felt that Micheaux did not pay enough attention to her. She gave birth while he was away on business. She was reported to have emptied their bank accounts and fled. While Micheaux was away, Orlean’s father sold his property and took Micheaux’s money. Micheaux attempted unsuccessfully to get his wife and property back. Although he had saved up a lot of money through his job as a Pullman Porter, Micheaux lost his money during this time. After many failed attempts to recover some of these assets, he needed to move onto his next career and make some money fast.
Writing and film career
t was at this point that Micheaux decided to become a writer and, eventually, a filmmaker, in a new industry.
Micheaux wrote seven novels. In 1913, 1000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader were printed. He published the book anonymously, for unknown reasons. It was based on his experiences as a homesteader and the failure of his first marriage, and was essentially an autobiography about his early life. Although character names have been changed, the protagonist is named Oscar Devereaux. His theme was about African Americans' realizing their potential and succeeding in areas in which they may have been previously denied access.
Micheaux had a major career as a film producer and director: he produced over 40 films, which drew audiences throughout the US as well as internationally. In 1918, his novel The Homesteader, dedicated to Booker T. Washington, attracted the attention of George Johnson, the manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. After Johnson offered to make The Homesteader into a new feature film, negotiations and paperwork became contentious between him and Micheaux. Micheaux wanted to be directly involved in the adaptation of his book as a movie, but Johnson resisted and never produced the film.
Instead, Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City and Chicago; its first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film. Micheaux contacted wealthy white connections from his earlier career as a porter, and sold stock for his company at $75 to $100 a share. Micheaux hired actors and actresses and decided to premiere just when Chicago was celebrating the return of troops from war. The film and Micheaux received high praise from film critics. One article credited Micheaux with “a historic breakthrough, a creditable, dignified achievement”. Some members of the Chicago clergy criticized the film as libelous. The Homesteader became widely known as Micheaux’s breakout film; it helped him become widely known as a writer and a filmmaker.
In addition to writing and creating his own films from then on, Micheaux also adapted the works of different writers as silent pictures. Many of Micheaux’s films were open, blunt and thought-provoking regarding certain racial issues of that time. Micheaux once commented, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights”. Financial hardships during the Great Depression eventually made it impossible for Micheaux to keep producing films, and he returned to writing.
Micheaux’s first novel The Conquest was adapted to film and re-titled, The Homesteader. This film, which met with critical and commercial success, was first produced in 1918. This film revolves around a man named Jean Baptiste. Baptiste, who is called the Homesteader, falls in love with many white women but resists marrying them out of his loyalty to become a prominent figure for his race. He sacrifices love to show his masculinity and be a key symbol for his fellow African Americans. Baptiste then in turn looks for love within his own race and marries an African American woman. Relations between Baptiste and his wife progressively deteriorate and become increasingly tense. Eventually, Baptiste is not allowed to see his wife. She ultimately stabs her father and herself for keeping them apart and although Baptiste is accused of the crime he is ultimately cleared. An old love helps Baptiste through his troubles and they eventually marry after learning she is actually a mulatto. This story deals very extensively with race relationships and this conflict within African Americans of feeling weak or inferior.
Micheaux’s second silent film was Within Our Gates, produced in 1920. Although sometimes considered Micheaux’s response to the film Birth of a Nation, Micheaux maintained that he created the film as a response to the widespread instability following World War I. Within Our Gates revolved around the main character, Sylvia Landry, a school teacher. In a flashback, we see that Sylvia grows up as the adopted daughter of a sharecropper. When Sylvia’s father confronts their white landlord because he feel that he owes the family money, a fight ensues and somewhere along the way, the white landlord is shot by another white man. However, Sylvia’s black father is accused and him and his wife are cruelly lynched. This scene represents Micheaux’s thoughts about the dynamics of the racial hierarchy found within the south. Sylvia is almost raped by the landowner’s brother but discovers that he is actually her father. This mini flashback scene serves to show that lower and middle class African Americans are hardworking people who are being terrorized and unfairly treated by white people. Micheaux always depicts African Americans as being studious and reaching for higher education. Before the flashback scene, we see that Sylvia goes to Boston to find funding for the school in the south where many poor African American children attend. On her journey, she is hit by the car of a very rich white woman who decides to give the school $50,000. Within the film, Micheaux depicts educated and professional people as light-skinned, and poor people as dark-skinned. However, these light-skinned people also represent the villains of the story. This film takes place within the Jim Crow era, and contracts rural and urban experiences for the African American population. In creating a setting for this film in the present day, Micheaux emphasizes the suffering of African Americans in the present day, and does not discuss who this suffering came to be or who is at fault for it. Some feared that this film would cause even more unrest within society, while others believed that it would open up the public’s eyes into the unjust practices pertaining to the black and white communities. Protests against the film continued up until the day it released. The film continued to create controversy and was even censored or banned from some theaters.
Micheaux's films typically featured outlooks on contemporary black life, specifically those that dealt with relationships between blacks and whites, and the journey for blacks to become more successful within society. His films also reflect his ideologies and life experiences. Journalist Richard Gehr once commented, “Micheaux appears to have only one story to tell- his own- and he tells it repeatedly”. Micheaux sought to create films that would act as a response to white people’s demeaning outlooks towards African Americans. Micheaux aimed to create complex characters and was never interested in simplicity. His own life experiences acted as the main ties between all of his different works. As Micheaux grew up in the uncertain social climate of southern Illinois, he understood the relationships between African Americans and whites, and how each group of people somewhat misunderstood the other.
Micheaux pursued moderation within his films and created what has been called a “middle-class cinema”. His form of cinema was designed to be relatable to middle class and lower-class audiences. Micheaux once said,
“My results…might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominate characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not”.
Legacy and honors
By the 1990s, a number of prominent African American filmmakers had emerged, such as Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy, and Melvin Van Peebles. Films by these directors shared some of the same themes that were common in Micheaux’s films.
The Oscar Micheaux Award for excellence was established.
The Oscar Micheaux Sociey at Duke University continues to honor his work and educate about his legacy.
Historian and biographer Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor said: “Thanks to the tireless efforts and dedication of the film scholars, the African American artists and entrepreneurs, and the great grandchildren of the Rosebud homesteaders, a new generation of writers, film makers, earnest young entrepreneurs, and the descendants of those who settled the Rosebud will glimpse again Micheaux’s undying vision- appropriately modified in language to encompass our growing egalitarianism- 'that a colored man can be anything'.”
1987, Micheaux was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
1989 the Directors Guild of America honored Micheaux with a Golden Jubilee Special Award.
The Producers Guild created an annual award in his name.
1989, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame gave him a posthumous award.
Gregory, South Dakota holds an annual Oscar Micheaux Film Festival.
A documentary was made about Micheaux, called Midnight Ramble (2004). Its title refers to the early 20th-century practice of some white cinemas' screening films for African-American audiences only at matinees and midnight.
2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Oscar Micheaux on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
On June 22, 2010 the US Postal Service issued a 44-cent, Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp.
2011, the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia created a category for donors, the Micheaux Society, in honor of Micheaux.
The Homesteader (1919)
Within Our Gates (1919)
Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
The Brute (1920)
Son of Satan (1922)
The Dungeon (1922)
The Gunsaulus Mystery (1922)
The Virgin of the Seminole (1922)
Jasper Landry's Will (1923)
Body and Soul (1924)
The Spider's Web (1926)
The Millionaire (1927)
When Men Betray (1928)
Thirty Years Later (1928)
Wages of Sin (1929)
Darktown Revue (1930)
A Daughter of the Congo (1930)
Easy Street (1930)
The Exile (1931)
Black Magic (1932)
Ten Minutes to Live (1932)
Veiled Aristocrats (1932)
Ten Minutes to Kill (1933)
The Girl From Chicago (1933)
Harlem After Midnight (1934)
Lem Hawkins' Confession (1935) also released as Murder in Harlem
God's Step Children (1938)
Lying Lips (1939)
The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940)
The Betrayal (1948)
Micheaux, Oscar (1913). Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. Lincoln, Nebraska: Woodruff Press.
Micheaux, Oscar (1915). The Forged Note. Lincoln, Nebraska: Western Book Supply Company.
Micheaux, Oscar (1917). The Homesteader: A Novel. Sioux City, Iowa: Western Book Supply Company.
Micheaux, Oscar (1941). The Wind from Nowhere. New York: Book Supply Company. OCLC
Micheaux, Oscar (1944). The Case of Mrs. Wingate. New York: Book Supply Company.
Micheaux, Oscar (1946). The Story of Dorothy Stanfield. New York: Book Supply Company.
Micheaux, Oscar (1947). Masquerade, a Historical Novel. New York: Book Supply Company.