What do Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, Steve McQueen, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Julie Dash and Charles Burnett have in common? They are all Black filmmakers who stand on the shoulders of the pioneering work of Oscar Micheaux.

You’ve probably never heard of Micheaux, but there was a time back when silent films were the vogue and he was alone as an African-American filmmaker. In fact, in 1919, the year of the infamous “Red Summer,” so named for the intense racial conflict in the country, Micheaux produced the first film by an African-American. Even more significantly, he formed his own production company, which was the only way he would be able to make a film in the first place.

Born in 1884 near Metropolis, Ill., he grew up on a farm near Cairo, Ill., or in Great Bend, Kan., depending on which historian you favor. In either case, his early years were spent on a farm, because he was one of 11 or 13 children of former slaves. As you can see, there is no consensus on Micheaux’s formative years, though there appears to be agreement once his filmmaking and literary careers are underway.

From this rural experience, the making of his first film “The Homesteader” would seem to be an obvious choice. This silent movie starred Evelyn Preer and was based on a novel Micheaux authored. In his next film, “The Exile,” which had sound, he once more resorted to his own background for the storyline, in which the protagonist leaves Chicago to operate a ranch in South Dakota. In 1904, he had purchased a farm in South Dakota, drawing inspiration from the self-help message of Booker T. Washington, whom he deeply admired.

Twenty years later, in 1924, he produced “Body and Soul,” and this film introduced the world to the magnificent genius of Paul Robeson. The plot of the film, according to Susan Robeson, Paul’s granddaughter, is confusing, “perhaps the result of the New York Board of Censorship, which forced Micheaux to re-edit the film at least once. But it does reflect a racial consciousness and insight into contradictions within the Black community.” She also notes that this film, like many of Micheaux’s films, departed from the usual stereotypical depictions made by white filmmakers. The film, which is silent, is also the one film by Micheaux that is still available and in good condition.

His radical departure from the racist films of an era dominated by D.W. Griffith, and most notably Griffith’s “Birth of Nation,” was underscored by his film “Within Our Gates,” made in 1920. The film’s controversial lynching scene was so graphically well done that it almost caused it to be censored. Four years later, the race theme was given a more complex turn in “Birthright.” In this story, a young Black Harvard graduate with ambitions to open a Black school in his hometown is met with opposition from white segregationists and “Black Uncle Toms” equally upset by the venture.

After an earlier unhappy marriage, Micheaux found his mate for life in actress Alice B. Russell.

The source of his success in films had as much to do with his prowess behind the camera and as a writer than his sense of promotion and advertising. He would arrive in town, get the word out through the local newspapers and word of mouth, and then set up his makeshift screening in a vacant lot after sunset. Even so, the enterprising entrepreneur was soon like too many other businessmen during the Great Depression: stone broke and bankrupt by 1928.

Several years later, in 1937, his filmmaking career came to an abrupt end after he was met with attacks from activists on the left who took exception to his film “God’s Stepchildren,” about Black people passing for white.

No longer able to muster the desire for films, Micheaux returned to writing his novels, one of which became a national bestseller. It should also be noted that he is often confused with the renowned bookstore owner in Harlem Lewis Michaux, of no

relation.

He was on a book tour and a business trip in Charlotte, N.C., when he died on April Fool’s Day in 1951. His body was returned to Great Bend, Kan., where he was interred in the local cemetery, alongside members of his family.

On his website, it notes that in 1986, he was honored by the Directors Guild of America with a Golden Jubilee Special Award. Today, that award is presented annually by the Producers Guild.

According to his website: “For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Oscar Micheaux has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6721 Hollywood Blvd. There is a 1994 documentary about Micheaux, ‘Midnight Ramble,’ named after the ‘Midnight Rambles’ in which cinemas would show films at midnight to African-American audiences.

“In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante, father of African-American filmmaker M.K. Asante Jr., listed Oscar Micheaux on his list of ‘100 Greatest African-Americans.’

“On June 22, 2010, in New York, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 44-cent, Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp.

Activities

  • Find out more: One of the best websites to obtain more information on Micheaux is blackfilmmakershalloffame.com. There are several books on his life and legacy, including an entry in Rachel Kranz’s “The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans” (Facts on File, 1992).
  • Discussion: What were some of the financial and social obstacles Micheaux had to overcome in order to become a success? There were other early African-American pioneers in film—seek them out and see to what extent there was agreement or disagreement among them.
  • Place in context: During the time that Micheaux was making his films and writing his books, there was tremendous hostility to Black Americans asserting themselves in business or politics. Micheaux was a great admirer of Booker T. Washington. What survival lessons did he learn from him?

This Week in Black History

  • Nov. 4, 1988: Noted comedian and philanthropist Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, announce they will donate $20 million to Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, Ga.
  • Nov. 5, 1841: A mutiny on the slave ship Creole is led by Madison Washington. They force the captain to take them to Nassau in the Bahamas, where they are given asylum and later freed.
  • Nov. 6, 1920: Having acquired a slew of honors and achievements, the versatile writer James Weldon Johnson adds yet another feather to his cap when he becomes the first African-American executive secretary of the NAACP.