Oscar Micheaux: The first prominent African-American filmmaker

AUTODIDACT 17 | 2/26/2016, 1:46 p.m.
Movie-director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith are leading a boycott of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony due to its ...
Oscar Micheaux

Movie-director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith are leading a boycott of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony due to its “lack of Black” nominees after an all-Caucasian slate was selected last month for the second consecutive year. They’re also calling for colleagues to establish their own awards, i.e., a Black Oscars, which conjures memories of famed filmmaker Oscar Micheuax.

Micheuax was the pre-eminent African-American filmmaker of the 20th century’s first half and the most established producer of “race films,” both silent ones and “talkies.” He was the first African-American to write, direct and produce a full-length feature film (“The Homesteader,” 1919) and also broke ground by becoming the first to implement audible movies with “The Exile” (1931).

Born Jan. 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Ill., Oscar Devereaux Micheaux and his 12 siblings were the children of formerly enslaved Africans. He moved to Chicago at age 17 before relocating to predominantly white Dallas, S.D., where he acquired several hundred acres of farmland and worked odd jobs. These experiences fertilized ideas for his novels and films.

“Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sat at a table with his [Caucasian] neighbors,” wrote Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor in “Oscar Micheaux, A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker.”

He’d go on to utilize motion pictures, which was a new medium then, to capture the racial climate during the separatist Jim Crow era, as well as to raise his people’s consciousness. Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s do-for-self ideologies, he pooled his resources and financed his own projects, producing materials that were didactic mediums.

Micheaux penned his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” in 1913, which he rewrote into his most popular book, “The Homesteader,” in 1917. He self-published and distributed it, selling door-to-door while traveling abroad as did similarly with follow-up efforts. Eventually, he moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and established the Western Book and Supply Co., converting it into the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1920. Micheuax sold company stock to finance future projects.

“One of the greatest tasks of my life has been to teach that the [Black] man can be anything,” Micheaux emphasized. “The Homesteader” premiered Feb. 20, 1919, in Chicago, launching Micheaux’s screen career.

His second film, “Within Our Gates” (1920), is often considered a response to the overtly racist “Birth of a Nation,” one of the era’s most popular movies and which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Regardless, Micheaux said he created it as a response to the nationwide social instability. The movie was widely protested against and eventually banned from some theaters.

“I have always tried to lay before the [Black] race a cross-section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range,” Micheaux noted.

He independently produced about 44 films, including Paul Robeson’s screen debut, 1925’s “Body and Soul,” and cast renowned actor James Earl Jones’ father, Robert Earl Jones.

Micheaux married Orlean McCracken in April 1910, then Alice B. Russell in March 1926, to whom he remained married until his passing.

Micheaux transitioned March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, N.C., from heart failure. He was interred in Great Bend Cemetery in Kansas, the place of his childhood. His gravestone reads: “A man ahead of his time”.