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Against the Grain: Black Film Pioneers: Part III: Oscar Micheaux

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Added: 09/23/2013

NOTE: When available, the images in the article below link to a larger version of the image. Some of these images  were supplied by the author, some come from the the Hershenson/Allen Archive, and some come from's Auction History.

"Oscar 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 to leave 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 begins.

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.

George Johnson, 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 villainous roles.

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 his films.

However, his films presented an alternative to the objectionable image projected by contemporary Hollywood films.

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 1949).

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.

The National 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 His Time."
-Gabe Taverney

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