The man whose career inspired several generations of filmmakers from Charles Burnett, Spike Lee to even Tyler Perry, was born on this day, in 1884, when the father of Black film, Oscar Micheaux, made his entrance into the world. An author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films over 30 years, Micheaux is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker AND the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century.
This past year, African-Americans enjoyed one of their most successful years and film history and much of that can be attributed to the standard that Micheaux created almost a century ago. Over the course of his career, Micheaux’s films featured contemporary black life, dealing with racial relationships between blacks and whites, and the passage for blacks trying to achieve success in the larger society. His films also reflect his ideologies and life experiences. A journalist once commented that, “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. 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.
“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,” Micheaux once said. “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.”
A prominent producer of race films, Micheaux produced both silent films and “talkies” after the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors. His second film, Within Our Gates (1920), remains the oldest feature-length film directed by an African-American that exists. In 1924, he cast an unknown ex-athlete named Paul Roberson in dual roles in the classic silent film, Body and Soul.
Born during a period when 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 his films in later years. He became his own boss after being “swindled out of two dollars” by an employment agency, initially setting up 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 and later became a Pullman porter on the major railroads, a job at that time that was 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.
After a failed marriage that cost him his life savings, Micheaux decided to concentrate on writing and, eventually filmmaking, a new industry. He wrote seven novels, selling 1,000 copies of his first one, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader in 1913. 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 from which they were previously excluded.
Micheaux dedicated his 1918 novel The Homesteader, to Booker T. Washington. The book 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, with Micheaux wanting to be directly involved in the adaptation of his book as a movie, but Johnson resisted and never produced the film.
Undeterred, Micheaux made history when he 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.
The entrepreneur Micheaux contacted wealthy white connections from his earlier career as a porter, and sold stock for his company at $75 to $100 a share. He hired actors and actresses and decided to premiere in Chicago was 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.
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 theaters.
Micheaux adapted two works by Charles W. Chesnutt, which he released under their original titles: The Conjure Woman (1926) and The House Behind the Cedars. The latter, which dealt with issues of mixed race and passing, created so much controversy when reviewed by the Film Board of Virginia that he was forced to make cuts to have it shown in the state. He remade this in 1932, releasing it as Veiled Aristocrats. Both versions of the film are believed to have been lost.
Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina, of heart failure. His gravestone reads: “A man ahead of his time.” He absolutely was!!!
Below, check out the “great eight” surviving Micheaux films!
Within In Our Gates
The Symbol of the Unconquered
Body and Soul
Ten Minutes to Live
The Girl From Chicago
Murder in Harlem