With all the recent discussions about the absence of Black people being represented in the award shows of the film business, it is very interesting to find out that one of the pioneers of the film industry was a Black man. He was an extremely gifted artist who was not only an author but also a film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. He occupies the space as the first major African American feature film maker and the most successful one of the first half of the 20th century. He was also the most notable producer of “race” (racial) films. In this case, race films were movies produced by African Americans for African American audiences. His name was Oscar Micheaux. Oscar Micheaux was born in 1884 on a farm in rural Illinois. He was one of 13 children and his father had been Enslaved. His parents noted that he was very quick to learn and took great interest in doing well in whatever he tried as was wide-spread with ex-Slave youth. At this time in the US, educational opportunities were just not available to African Americans as white racists fought at every turn to suffocate the abilities of Black People with oppression in every area of society. As was the case for Black families that were able to find a way, the Micheaux family relocated to the city for better educational opportunities for the children. However, the money ran out and after a few years the family had to move back to farm life. But farm life was not for Oscar Micheaux. He felt an urge to create and needed an outlet. He became troublesome, problems developed in the home and it was decided he would leave to do marketing in the city. He was now able to meet new and different people and learn new social skills. After a series of jobs, including working in the stock yards and being swindled out of money by an employment agency, he decided that it would be best if he started his own business and be his own boss. He set up a shoe shine stand in a white suburban barbershop where he was able to save some money and kept his ears open to learn the basics of business. Working his way up in life, he took what was considered a good job for African Americans–as a Pullman Porter which proved to be an education for him. He was able to get knowledge of other parts of the country and the differences in people, saved a good bit of money, sharpened his business knowledge and made contacts with wealthy white folks that he would use later in his career.
Mr. Micheaux’s next move was west to South Dakota because he felt that independence for the Black man was on the western frontier. He bought some land and worked as a homesteader. This experience allowed him a closer look at human nature and relationships which would be food for articles and motion pictures he would go on to make. His farm was a success until the big Drought came and he had to sell his land. This was a time in the country of particular volatility when attitudes toward Black people and the restrictions placed on them made it difficult for any Black person to succeed. What he had learned was that the only person he could rely on was himself and so, he again made himself his own boss. It appears he was never at a loss for new start-up ideas. At this point he created his own publishing company and distributed his books door-to-door.
Realizing the impact that the new medium of film could have on people, he decided his stories needed to get to a wider audience. So he continued to be creative when he started his own movie production company. In 1919, he became the first African American to make a feature length film. His life experiences were the stories he wanted to tell and with a message. He thus decided to use this new medium in order to tell the world that, in his words, “the Colored man can be anything”. He used his films to speak out about the lie of racism and that it could be challenged. His first book, “The Conquest: The Story of the Negro Pioneer” was rewritten by him into “The Homesteader” and was his most famous book. It was also the first of his motion pictures. The Johnson brothers, who were also African American pioneers in the film industry, wanted to produce his movie but could not meet all of his demands for its production. Wanting to produce the movie his way, but needing more funding, Mr. Micheaux turned to the wealthy businessmen he had cultivated earlier in his life and sold them stock in his company. And this move worked! He felt the need to speak up for the African American community and did so eloquently in his film Within Our Gates which was a rebuttal of Birth of a Nation which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and sought to justify the violent oppression of African Americans. His idea was to attack, with superior and complex Black characters, the inferior stereotypes put forth by white producers. He continued to work out of Chicago, which at that time was the center of the film business. He made every type of story from musicals and westerns to comedies and gangster films both in silent films and “talkies” when they came to be.
Popular themes of his films were the legal injustices and inequalities, lynchings, racial intermarriage, job discrimination, mob violence, and economic exploitation, all issues the Black community had to deal with on a daily basis. The idea was to question the value systems in the white communities. His business ventures were a positive for the African American community, as he gave not only employment to Black people but also provided on- the-job training for many who would then be able to go on to better positions–a perfect example of lifting while climbing. His place in the film industry also helped to introduce Black actors and actresses that otherwise would not have been able to crack the wall of discrimination that existed then and still does today. One actor that started with Mr. Micheaux is a very familiar name—i.e. Paul Robeson.
Oscar Micheaux continues to be relevant because the injustices and discrimination with false messages about Black people and the stereotypes that he portrayed on screen, are still present today. That resonates with Black People. What also speaks to the world is the courage he had to stand up for what he knew was wrong. He continues to be honored across the country with annual film festivals, formations of Micheaux societies and the establishment of the Oscar Micheaux Award for excellence.
About himself and his work he is quoted as saying, “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 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.” Oscar Micheaux died in 1951.