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Oscar Micheaux: First Black Filmmaker

Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux was the first Black film director to make a full-length movie. Over the course of his career, he told realistic stories of Black lives, beginning with his first film based on his own book about homesteading. Another substantial credit earned by Micheaux was introducing film newcomer Paul Robeson to the screen.

While his film success may seem the most noteworthy of his accomplishments in light of our world today, Oscar Micheaux also had other firsts: He amassed land in the West at a time when few Blacks were homesteading; he published his own novels, one of which went on to be a bestseller; and he fearlessly entered the world of filmmaking when the industry was in its infancy.

Early Life

Micheaux (1884-1951) was one of eleven children born to former slaves. Oscar’s father was an industrious but illiterate farmer who took good care of his family and served as a positive role model. Micheaux’s mother learned to read, so she brought her children up reading the Scriptures and telling them stories of men like Booker T. Washington.

When Oscar was born, the family lived near Metropolis, Illinois. They soon moved to Great Bend, Kansas, where Oscar grew up.

Micheaux did well in school, but his studious approach to his classwork made him no friends, and he was perpetually an outsider. Though he helped his father on the farm, he disliked the work. In high school, he had an opportunity to get a job, so he opted to work at a car plant company instead of continuing his education.

After a few months at the car plant, he heard of a better-paying job working in a mine. His goal was to earn enough money for a train ticket to Chicago. One of his older brothers lived there and was doing well enough as a waiter.

Chicago

When Oscar Micheaux arrived in Chicago, it offered everything he dreamed of—many job opportunities and lots of stimulation. 

He knew he couldn’t be picky about his first job, so he accepted a job in the stockyards—a disturbing and unpleasant place to work.

When an opportunity arose to move to a steel mill job, he took it. But soon, to his surprise, he found that he could pocket more money by shining shoes at a barber shop. He worked pitching hay at a nearby farm in the morning. Then he would arrive at the barber shop by mid-afternoon when things were getting busy.  The tips were good for a diligent worker, and he was able to save much of what he made there.

Pullman Jobs Highly Coveted

Oscar Micheaux kept his ears open for good opportunities, and Black men in Chicago who were lucky enough to be hired as Pullman porters came back, telling of all they saw and heard on their job. 

“Lincoln freed the slaves but Pullman hired them,” was a popular saying around Chicago. These jobs were life-changing for African American men.

Pullman porters were not particularly well-paid, but tips were possible, and the job opened an unseen world to men who were used to living in one community. They listened to all the people they met on the trains as they traveled. They soon saw that locals were interested in them, too. The porters began traveling with black newspapers, and everywhere they went, they told stories and shared the music of the day.

Everything they learned on the road came home with them and influenced Black culture everywhere.  

Micheaux was delighted when he was assigned to a train run that traveled West from Colorado to Wyoming and Idaho, ending its run in Oregon. After the congestion of Chicago, he loved everything he saw from the windows of the train and aspired to settle somewhere where there was wide skies and open space. 

As he traveled, he also heard that the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota was going to be opened to homesteaders. Micheaux had saved his money and wanted to investigate.

South Dakota

With the mission of homesteading in mind, Micheaux journeyed to South Dakota in 1904. He hoped to see the land that would be open to homesteaders.

The community was not welcoming.  With some difficulty, Micheaux found a man with a wagon who was willing to drive a black man around to see the available land.

That fall, Micheaux was not quite 21, but he was excited about the opportunity. He committed to taking a property the following year. That winter he continued his work as a porter to save more money.

In spring 1905, he returned to take possession and plant his land. He did not know much about farming, so his eventual success was hard-won. He increased the value of his land and began to amass more property.

Over time, he found the white homesteaders friendly, but Micheaux wanted a wife. He returned to Chicago to find someone who would come to South Dakota with him. His first choices turned him down, but his marriage proposal to Orlean McCracken, a schoolteacher and daughter of a reverend, was accepted.

Married Life

Married life for Oscar and Orlean in South Dakota did not go well. When Micheaux traveled for work, Orlean felt abandoned, During one of the times he was away, Orlean suffered a miscarriage. Her family did not like having her on the homestead alone. They traveled to South Dakota and took her back to Chicago with them.

When Micheaux returned home, he was heartbroken. He followed Orlean to Chicago but was unsuccessful at persuading her to return. His time in Chicago coincided with a bad drought in the Dakotas. When he got back to his farm, he found crops withered and most of the land too dry to plant.

He also learned worse news. When his father-in-law arrived to take Orlean back to Chicago, he arranged for the sale of the one section of the property that might have been farmed.

Micheaux’s dream of being a successful homesteader was over.

Reading and Writing

Oscar Micheaux, Black Filmmaker
Film by Oscar Micheaux

The farmhouse on the unusable land was still his, so he remained on the farm. He was very depressed and could not afford much so he spent his time reading. He was particularly taken by the memoirs he read, including one by Jack London.

He tried doing some writing, and he had some luck with publication in 1910. The Chicago Defender published one of his articles about the importance of blacks creating lives independent of whites.

After this initial publishing success, he began to think about writing a memoir. As his story took shape, he hired an editor. He began sending the manuscript out to publishers, but it was rejected numerous times. Micheaux realize that if he wanted his book published, he was going to have to do it himself.

He maintained good friendships with other homesteaders, so he talked to them about what he wanted to do. If he offered them excerpts from the book as he went along, would they pay him in advance for the complete novel?

He soon had the $250 needed to publish the book. Calling it The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, he published it in 1913.

As Micheux wrote: “I want to see the Negro pictured in books and movies like he lives, so I formed my own book publishing firm and write my own books.”

Business in Chicago

When the book was finished, he intended to go to Chicago to promote it. However, first, he wanted to settle the score with his father-in-law, the Reverand McCracken, who sold some of his property out from under him. Micheaux launched his lawsuit, and a good deal of publicity resulted.

Ironically, this publicity increased the effectiveness of the advertising he purchased to sell the book. He began to see steady sales figures.

Micheaux Learns Film

As his book became better known, Oscar Micheaux was approached for film rights by an African American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

Storytelling through film appealed to Micheaux, so he converted his company to The Micheaux Film and Book Company. 

But Micheaux had seen through his publishing venture that it was possible to maintain control of one’s projects.

He raised money by selling stock in the company and soon began filming. When the silent film, The Homesteader starring Evelyn Preer, was completed, it was the first full-length film made by a Black producer/director. The Homesteader was released in 1919 in Chicago and was well-received.

Film Career Grows

Micheaux’s next film project was The Exile, his first film to use sound. Here, too, the plot was autobiographical. The central character leaves Chicago to operate a ranch in South Dakota.

By 1924, he was branching out and making more films. When he met the young and still largely inexperienced Paul Robeson, Micheaux cast him in Body and Soul.

Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux’s films led the way for other “race films” that told more realistic stories of black people and their lives. Micheaux’s films often dealt with controversial issues, and the characters were serious about life and understood the importance of getting an education.

Micheaux died in 1951 while on a business trip. He is buried in Great Bend, Kansas, near the rest of his family.

“A Man Ahead of His Time”

Oscar Micheaux’s grave stone reads “A Man Ahead of his Time,” and this was certainly true. Over the course of his career, Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed 44 feature films and wrote seven novels, the first of which was a national bestseller.

During his lifetime, Oscar Micheaux received few awards, but since that time, he has received many. He has been honored posthumously by a number of groups, including the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild. In 1987 Oscar Micheaux was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2010 a commemorative stamp was released in his honor.

Czar of Black Hollywood Tells Story

To make Oscar Micheaux’s life better known, film producer Bayer L. Mack made a documentary on Micheaux’s life called The Czar of Black Hollywood.

To view the documentary in its entirety, readers can find it here. But to learn a little more about Micheaux and his work, here’s a clip by Bayer Mack from YouTube:

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