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Oscar D. Micheaux (1884-1951): Author and Independent Producer and Director of Films Focused on Race Relations
Introduction: Oscar Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois on January 2, 1884. He was the fifth child born to Calvin S. and Belle Michaux, who had a total of thirteen children. In his later years, Micheaux added an “e” to his last name. His father was born a slave in Kentucky. Because of its surname, his father’s family appears to have been associated with French-descended settlers. French Huguenot refugees had settled in Virginia in 1700; their descendants took slaves west when they migrated into Kentucky after the American Revolutionary War.
Micheaux was born when African Americans were trying to succeed in a world dominated by whites. He 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 to the farm. Unhappy, Micheaux became rebellious and discontented. His struggles caused internal problems within his family. His 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 social skills that he would later reflect within his films.
When Micheaux was 17 years old, he moved to Chicago, to live with his older brother, then working as a waiter. Micheaux became dissatisfied with what he viewed as his brother’s way of living “the good life.” He rented his own place and found a job in the stockyards, which he found difficult. He worked many different jobs, moving from the stockyards to the steel mills.
After being “swindled out of two dollars” by an employment agency, Micheaux 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. He learned the basic strategies of business and started to save money. He became a Pullman Porter on the major railroads, at that time considered prestigious employment for African Americans, because it was relatively stable and 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, he had seen much of the United States, had a couple of thousand dollars saved in his bank account, and had made a number of connections with wealthy white people who helped his future endeavors.
Micheaux moved to Dallas, South Dakota, where he bought land and worked as a homesteader. This experience inspired his first novels and films. His neighbors on the frontier were all white. “Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sat at a 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 sources. The Chicago Defender published one of his earliest articles.
Marriage and Family: In South Dakota, Micheaux married Orlean McCracken. Her family proved to be complex and burdensome for Micheaux. Unhappy with their living arrangements, Orlean 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. Orlean’s father sold Micheaux’s property and took the money from the sale. After his return, Micheaux tried unsuccessfully to get Orlean and his property back.
Writing and Film Career: Micheaux decided to concentrate on writing and, eventually filmmaking, a new industry. He wrote seven novels. In 1913, 1,000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader, were printed. He published the book anonymously, for unknown reasons. Based on his experiences as a homesteader and the failure of his first marriage, it was largely autobiographical. 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 where they had not felt they could. The book is also full of vivid descriptions of the difference between city lifestyles of negroes and the life he decided to lead as a lone negro out in the far West as a pioneer. He discusses the culture of doers who want to accomplish, and those who see themselves as victims of injustice and hopelessness, and do not want to step out and try to succeed, but instead like to dress up and pretend to be successful while living the city lifestyle in poverty. His frustration with wanting to get members of his race to come and populate the frontier and make something of themselves, with real work and property investment, is shown in his comment that: he wrote over 100 letters to fellow Negros in the East beckoning them and only his older brother would eventually come try to settle the West. His struggles with his Father-In-Law, the preacher, are a good discussion of the fundamental belief that he holds similar to Booker T. Washington, that hard work and enterprise will make any man rise to respect and prominence no matter the race he happens to be. His personal experience throughout the book as the one member of his race among many various immigrants and settlers is a living example of his philosophy.
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 in Chicago; its first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film. 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. 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 in Chicago that was at the time celebrating the return of troops from World War I. 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 known as Micheaux’s breakout film; it helped him become widely known as a writer and a filmmaker.
In addition to writing and directing his own films, Micheaux also adapted the works of different writers for his silent pictures. Many of his films were open, blunt and thought-provoking regarding certain racial issues of that time. He 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.
Significant films: 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. It revolves around a man named Jean Baptiste, called the Homesteader, who falls in love with many white women but resists marrying one out of his loyalty to his race – people of ethnic African descent who were classified as black in the society. Baptiste sacrifices love to be a key symbol for his fellow African Americans. He looks for love among his own people and marries an African-American woman. relations between them deteriorate. Eventually, Baptiste is not allowed to see his wife. She kills her father for keeping them apart and commits suicide. Baptiste is accused of the crime, but is ultimately cleared. An old love helps him through his troubles. After he learns that she is a mulatto and thus part African, they marry. This film deals extensively with race relationships.
Micheaux’s second silent film was Within Our Gates, produced in 1920. Although sometimes considered his response to the film Birth of a Nation, Micheaux said that he created it independently as a response to the widespread social instability following World War I. Within Our Gates revolved around the main character, Sylvia Landry, a mixed-race school teacher:
In a flashback, Sylvia is shown growing up as the adopted daughter of a sharecropper. When her father confronts their white landlord over money, a fight ensues. The landlord is shot by another white man, but Sylvia’s adoptive father is accused and lynched, along with her adoptive mother.
Sylvia is almost raped by the landowner’s brother but discovers that he is her biological father. Micheaux always depicts African Americans as being serious and reaching for higher education. Before the flashback scene, we see that Sylvia travels to Boston seeking funding for her school, which serves black children. They are underserved by the segregated society. On her journey, she is hit by the car of a rich white woman. Learning about Landry’s cause, the woman decides to give her school $50,000.
Within the film, Micheaux depicts educated and professional people in black society as light-skinned, representing the elite status of some of the mixed-race people who comprised the majority of African Americans free before the Civil War. Poor people are represented as dark-skinned and with more undiluted African ancestry. Mixed-race people also feature as some of the villains. The film is set within the Jim Crow era. It contrasted the experiences for African Americans who stayed in rural areas and others who had migrated to cities and become urbanized. Micheaux explored the suffering of African Americans in the present day, without explaining how the situation arose in history. Some feared that this film would cause even more unrest within society, while others believed it would open the public’s eyes to the unjust treatment by whites of blacks. Protests against the film continued until the day it was released. Because of its controversial status, the film was banned from some theatres.
Themes: Micheaux’s films were coined during a time of great change in the African American community. His films featured contemporary black life. He dealt with racial relationships between blacks and whites, and the passage for blacks trying to achieve success in the larger society. Micheaux films were used to oppose and discuss the racial injustice that African American received. Topics such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation were discussed in his films. Micheaux films also reflect his ideologies and life experiences. The journalist Richard Gehr said, “Micheaux appears to have only one story to tell — his own — and he tells it repeatedly.”
Micheaux sought to create films that would counter white portrayals of African Americans, which tended to emphasize inferior stereotypes. He created complex characters of different classes, and was never interested in simplicity. The themes discussed in Micheaux’s films represented the development of the black voice in mass media. They questioned the value system of both African American and Caucasian communities, while causing problems with the press and state censors. His own life experiences were the basis for much of his work. Growing up in southern Illinois, which had long been influenced by Southern migrants and culture, he learned about some relationships between African Americans and whites, and their misunderstandings. The critic Lupack described Micheaux as pursuing moderation with his films and creating a “middle-class cinema”. His works were designed to appeal to both middle- and lower-class audiences.
Micheaux 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.”
Death: 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.”
Recognition: 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.
The United States Postal Service honored Micheaux with the 33rd stamp in the Black Heritage series. The stamp honors his pioneering efforts directing, producing, and distributing more than 40 movies during the first half of the 20th century. An ambitious, larger-than-life figure, Micheaux thrived at a time when African-American filmmakers were rare, venues for their work were scarce, and support from the industry did not exist. Micheaux’s entrepreneurial spirit and independent vision continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers and artists.
This stamp features a stylized portrait of Oscar Micheaux by Gary Kelley. The artwork is based on one of the few surviving photographs of Micheaux, a portrait that appeared in his 1913 novel, The Conquest.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): “Oscar Micheaux” (2015). Oscar D. Micheaux (1884-1951): Author and independent producer and director of films focused on race relations. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/micheaux-oscar-d-1884-1951-famous-author-producer-and-director-of-films-on-race-relations/