Oscar Micheaux: African-American Film Pioneer

Ask any African-American teenager or young adult today who some of the first directors and producers of early black cinema were and you might first encounter some blank stares. Afterward, if you get any answer at all, you might hear names like Spike Lee, John Singleton or Robert Townsend. It is unlikely that you’d hear the name of Oscar Micheaux, even though he was the first major African-American filmmaker and producer to make a talking film featuring an all-black cast.

Oscar Micheaux Biography

Oscar Micheaux was a writer and filmmaker who wrote, produced and directed over 40 films during a 30-year period, from 1919 to 1948. He was born in a small town in Illinois in January 1884 to Calvin and Belle Michaux. He later changed the spelling of his surname to Micheaux and after brief stints working as a farmer and a Pullman porter, he moved to South Dakota and became one of the few very successful African-American homesteaders.

In the early years of the twentieth century Micheaux turned his attention towards artistic endeavors and wrote his first novel, “The Homesteaders”, based upon his own experiences. For ten years, he wrote and self-published novels geared toward African-American audiences, which proved to be just the beginning of his creative ambitions.

the homesteader by oscar micheauxMicheaux was clearly not content with just being a writer and after founding his own production company in Harlem, New York, he turned The Homesteaders, into a full-length feature film in 1919. Over the next thirty years, he would write, produce, direct, market and sometimes act in films that he would then distribute to movie-houses all over the country.

Oscar Micheaux Picture Company – Early Race Movies

The Micheaeux Pictures Corporation was responsible for some of the earliest big screen depictions of African-American life, but, in the opinion of many critics, the images and stories left a lot to be desired.

For one, Oscar Micheaux seemed to be pre-occupied with the upper middle class, or bourgeoisie, lifestyle and entangled his black characters in the problems of the affluent rather than displaying them in surroundings that were more true to mainstream black life at the time. His film, Birthright, for example, made in 1924, focused on the trials of a young black Harvard graduate who returns to his southern hometown to try and uplift his people by building a “colored” school.

Although some of Micheaux’s early films did focus heavily on race relations and the hardships of black life in turn-of-the-century America, critics felt that he tried too hard to follow Hollywood stereotypes and featured screen idol-type actors in his films instead of average-looking or dark-skinned blacks. The 1924 film “Body and Soul”, a silent movie about black suffering, did star brown-skinned Paul Robeson, the celebrated African-American actor, but many other of Micheaux’s films featured performers like Lorenzo Tucker (the black Valentino), Slick Chester (the black Cagney) and Bee Freeman (the black Mae West).

Limited Technical and Financial Resources

Another criticism that Oscar Micheaux’s films faced was their poor technical quality.

The 1970’s saw a revival of interest in early black cinema and Micheaux was celebrated by film enthusiasts for his contributions as a writer, producer and director. Screenings of the actual films, however, were a bit of a disappointment because of their body and soul movie image with paul robesoninferior quality and artistic awkwardness. Due to financial constraints and lack of filmmaking resources, Micheaux often found himself creating movies in any way he could. Friends’ homes, hallways or even side streets were often used as the single backdrop for entire movies, lighting was terrible and there was never enough time or film stock for more than one take. Much of the acting was stiff and amateurish or overwrought and if a line was flubbed, it was left in the finished film, along with the actor’s recovery and continuation of the correct lines. In all fairness, Micheaux was doing the best he probably could have within very restricted artistic and societal conditions and severely limited resources. To his credit, in spite of all the obstacles, he went on to create an impressive number of films in his time.

Micheaux’s Portrayal of Black Life for Black Audiences

As for Oscar Micheaux himself, the prolific director believed that his films gave black audiences an alternative to the overused stereotypes of blacks that proliferated throughout mainstream american cinema during the “Jim Crow” era.

Being black and appearing in a major motion picture at that time undoubtedly meant playing the part of a maid, a criminal, a buffoonish entertainer or being relegated to the very fringes of the background, a backdrop to the real action. Micheaux’s films offered black actors the opportunity to portray characters with real emotional depth and gave beleaguered black audiences the chance to see people like themselves transported, if only for 90 minutes at a time, to a better and more desirable station in life.

Black women fared especially well in Micheaux’s movies and the characters they played were usually endowed with qualities of strength and self-awareness that drastically contrasted the “mammy” types of roles that all black women of a certain age in Hollywood were well accustomed to portraying. “All God’s Step-Children”, released in 1937, featured a female character, Naomi, whose independent and free-spirited nature revealed a much more complex, appealing and dynamic personality than most of the one-note male characters in Micheaux’s movies. In a Micheaux production, a black woman could break racial barriers, stand out and be a bona fide movie star, just like her white counterparts.

Within Our Gates Movie Controversy

Given his unique position as a prolific black filmmaker during the early part of the 1900’s, Micheaux was, of course, no stranger to controversy.

His film, “Within Our Gates” drew sharp criticism from southern theater owners and a board of Movie Sensors in Chicago attempted to ban the movie because it contained a lynching scene they feared would cause riots. The movie was finally cleared for release after meetings with black civic and community leaders were held but certain cities still refused to show the film in any of their theaters.

Whatever might be said about Oscar Micheaux as a filmmaker, one thing is certain: he was very persuasive and an excellent promoter. Surely, had he been selling insurance, he would have been just as successful as he was at selling and distributing his films. Micheaux had an intimate understanding of what it meant to be a “boot-strapper” and he did everything necessary to ensure that his works of art didn’t languish unseen. He convinced theater owners to put on special late screenings for black audiences and made deals to get financial advances on upcoming movies so he could go back out and continue filming. He traveled the country to spread the word about his films and eventually set up his own production company through which he continued to produce and sell movies even as many of his black filmmaker peers were going bankrupt.

It can no doubt be said that Oscar Micheaux was a pioneer in early black cinema, but due to the deterioration of old film stock, very little of his work survives today. By the time his last film, The Betrayal, was released, public interest in black dramas about race had declined and in 1951, he died in relative obscurity.

Oscar Micheaux Finally Honored for His Achievements

But as is the case with many pioneers, interest in Micheaux resurfaced a couple of decades after his death and he was awarded a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Additionally, he was honored with the distinction of having an awards ceremony named after him by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Oscar Micheaux Movies Available on DVD

Despite being a prolific filmmaker, very few of Oscar Micheaux’s numerous race movies are available for viewing. At this time, there are ten Oscar Micheaux films available on DVD. A list of these movies are below with links to more details and purchase information.

Read More About Oscar Micheaux

If you are interested in reading more about Oscar Micheaux’s life and films, here is a list of four biographical books.

Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only – The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker

Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era

With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux

The Life and Work of Oscar Micheaux: Pioneer Black Author and Filmmaker

The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer

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