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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part III: Oscar Micheaux
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Micheaux is now regarded as the most prestigious of all the black filmmakers who worked on what
later became known as "race films," movies which primarily appealed to black theater audiences in the
first half of the Twentieth Century. He was a pioneer publisher, writer, producer, director, and
distributor of innovative independent film.
Long before there was a Sundance Film Festival showcasing independent film, Micheaux created his own
venues for his own films. Incredibly hard-working and ambitious, he is considered one of the first
great African-American entrepreneurs.
Micheaux was born
in 1884 in Illinois but raised in Kansas, the son of a former slave and the fifth of thirteen
children. His hardworking father was able to send him to a good school, but the young Micheaux had
when the tuition money ran out, and he struck off on his own, first as a marketer and later as a
porter. Pullman porter was a prestigious job for a young black man during that time, but the
restless young man finally moved on to Chicago to work as a waiter and later as a laborer in the
stockyards and steel mills of the Windy City. Since several of his early books were
semi-autobiographical, it is sometimes hard to tell where the real Micheaux ends and the fictional
Micheaux's sound business instincts and personal pride drove him to want to work independently, and
he finally became self-employed by establishing his own shoeshine stand in a white barber shop.
After getting married, he reinvented himself once again as a farmer in South Dakota and began publishing
stories. Eventually the marriage failed and his wife sold the farm during one of his absences.
Although broke, he was able to write an autobiographical novel about his experiences called THE
HOMESTEADER, which he self-published and sold door-to-door to mostly white neighbors, making
many contacts as he did.
brother of Noble, whose Lincoln Film Company became the first black-owned film production company,
wanted to film it. Micheaux wanted creative control of the project and a larger budget, but Johnson
refused. The independent but broke Micheaux then founded his own production unit financed by the
sale of stock to mostly white acquaintances and friends that he had met during his earlier jobs.
After THE HOMESTEADER became the first black-produced feature film in 1919, Micheaux's next
project was even bolder. The Negro community had hated the racism of BIRTH OF A NATION in
1915, and WITHIN OUR GATES became Micheaux's answer to Griffith's film. The novice filmmaker
consciously featured images of black males that ran counter to the shuffling Uncle Toms and black
villains portrayed in BIRTH.
According to Micheaux, "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." Although this film was once thought completely lost, an edited version of WITHIN OUR GATES has been discovered in Spain, and it remains
the oldest surviving film made by and for African-Americans. It's importance cannot be
overestimated, and it has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Below at left: a re-release poster. Below at center:
a flyer for Micheaux's third film THE BRUTE (1921). Below at right: The Betrayal lobby card.
The now successful Micheaux based his low-budget productions wherever he could, usually New York or
Chicago, and hired actors who were unemployed and would work cheaply.
Although he was praised for offering his black audience positive images of upwardly-mobile and
assertive black characters in his films, Micheaux was frequently criticized for utilizing
light-skinned blacks as his chief protagonists and darker-skinned performers in many of the
Although his films covered many genres (crime, Westerns, romances, and musicals) a recurring theme
in many of his films was a light-skinned African-American passing for white. Ironically one of the
first major Hollywood studio films to confront race relations was IMITATION OF LIFE, which employed the same theme
in 1934, and when Hollywood's breakthrough on racism occurred in 1949, two of the films released
that year, PINKY and LOST BOUNDARIES also recycled that same story line, and were
praised for their courage.
After a film wrapped, Micheaux, ever the auteur and showman, supervised in the production of the
posters and personally went from town to town and state to state with cans of film and posters in
his touring car. He would distribute the posters, which are among the most graphically attractive
and colorful of any "race films" of the era, rent a local theater, run the film, and collect the
receipts. Then it was on to the next town. As he went through this process, he would also be looking
for backers for his next film. Persistence and a strong work ethic may have been his greatest qualities.
Micheaux realized another first in 1931 when his production of THE EXILE became the first
black-produced sound film.
Here are some of the beautiful lithographed one-sheets that publicized Micheaux's films:
Micheaux was not innovative as a director and never made any film that could be judged a
masterpiece. Many times it was quite obvious that his films' production values reflected their
miniscule budgets (about $15,000 each) and short shooting schedules dictated that retakes were
seldom shot. There is no shortage of misread lines, technical gaffes, and visible crew members in
However, his films presented an alternative to the objectionable image projected by contemporary
This is a rare Micheaux window card for THE BETRAYAL (1948), his last film, and the first
film by a black producer to play in an all-white theater.
During a 30 year career, Micheaux produced over 40 films and lived to see the beginnings of change
in Hollywood with such films as INTRUDER IN THE DUST and HOME OF THE BRAVE (both
Micheaux was posthumously inducted into the Director's Guild of America and received a Golden
Jubilee Award in recognition of his contributions. In 1986 was honored with a postage stamp.
He later received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987.
Micheaux was the subject of a biography by noted film historian Patrick McGilligan, author of books
on both Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor.
Black Programming Consortium has named its annual award in his honor, and the Producers' Guild has
an Oscar Micheaux Award for those "whose achievements in film and television have been accomplished
despite difficult odds."
The Oscar Micheaux Memorial Film Festival is held annually at Temple University, another in Great
Bend, Kansas, and the Oscar Micheaux Center has an annual festival celebrating the literary and
cinematic achievements in South Dakota.
He died in 1951 in New York but chose to be buried in Kansas. His tombstone reads "A Man Ahead of
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