Micheaux, Oscar 1884–1951
Oscar Micheaux 1884–1951
No history of American cinema is complete without the inclusion of Oscar Micheaux, an enterprising writer/director/producer whose filmmaking career spanned three decades prior to the dawn of the civil rights movement. Micheaux was a pioneering creator of “race films”—motion pictures for black audiences whose entertainment options were limited by segregation and whose tastes were insulted by racist Hollywood fare. He was not the first African American filmmaker, but he was the most successful of his time.
He is the only artist who produced both silent and talking films—and the only black director who was able to sustain a career through the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As Donald Bogle explained in Film Comment, Micheaux aimed to create a kind of “alternative cinema” in which blacks were not exploited as either docile servants or ignorant bumpkins, but were rather imbued with the classic American aspirations of upward mobility, romantic fulfillment, and inherent dignity.
Bogle wrote of Micheaux’s work: “In these films, black Americans saw themselves incorporated into the national pop mythology, and a new set of archetypes emerged: heroic black men of action. Whether cowboys, detectives, or weary army vets, many of the early characters were walking embodiments of black assertion and aggression, and, of course, they gave the lie to America’s notions of a Negro’s place.” The critic added: “To appreciate Micheaux’s films one must understand that he was moving as far as possible from Hollywood’s jesters and servants. He wanted to give his audience something ’to further the race, not hinder it…’ [His works] remain a fascinating comment on black social and political aspirations of the past. And the Micheaux ideal Negro worldview popped up in countless other race movies. His films likely set the pattern for race movies in general.”
The facts of Oscar Micheaux’s life are shrouded in mystery today. Most of what is known about his youth comes from his own writings, which have been liberally fictionalized. One fact emerges repeatedly, however: Micheaux was a determined and tireless promoter who left no stone unturned in his quest for money to finance his books and
At a Glance…
Born Oscar Devereaux Michaux (surname later spelled Micheaux), January 2, 1884, near Metropolis, IL; died March 26, 1951, in Charlotte, NC; son of Calvin (a farmer) and Belie (Washingham) Michaux; married second wife, Alice Russell (an actress), 1929. Education: High school graduate.
Worked at various jobs in Chicago and South Dakota, early 1900s; writer, 1913-51; filmmaker, 1910 48. Produced, wrote, and directed more than 40 movies, including The Homesteader, 1919; Within Our Gates, 1920; The Gunsaulus Mystery, 1921; The Ghost of Tolston’s Manor, 1923; Body and Soul, 1925; A Son of Satan, 1925; The Exile, 1932; The Girl from Chicago, 1932; Ten Minutes to live, 1932; Ten Minutes to Kill, 1933; Lem Hawkins’ Confession, 1935; Swing!, 1930; God’s Stepchildren, 1930; Birthright, 1939; The Notorious Minor Lee, 1940; Lying Lips, 1940; and The Betrayal, 1948.
Selected awards: Granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; annual award, sponsored by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, was named for Micheaux in celebration of black contributions to American film.
films. In an American Film essay, Richard Gehr called Micheaux “a bona fide artistic pioneer as well as an extraordinarily energetic and resourceful individualist.”
Micheaux was born January 2, 1884, on a farm near Metropolis, Illinois. He was the fifth of thirteen children born to Calvin and Belle Michaux. As might be expected with a large family, the Michaux clan struggled financially. Oscar’s parents stressed education, however, and the youngster grew up determined to seek his fortune elsewhere. Even as a child, Gehr reported, Micheaux was nicknamed “Oddball” because he was constantly engaged in private projects. He also read widely and was particularly drawn to the self-help social doctrines of Booker T. Washington.
At 17 Micheaux left Metropolis and moved to Chicago. There he held a succession of low-wage jobs, eventually becoming a porter on a Pullman train car. After three years in that position, he became restless again. In 1904 he settled on a tract of land in South Dakota, where he grew quite prosperous through hard work. By his own account, as recorded in his first book, The Conquest: The Story; of a Negro Pioneer, by the Pioneer, he was worth the considerable sum of $20,000 by the time he turned 24.
Two events moved Micheaux in a new direction in 1909. He saw his first minstrel show that year and was inspired by it to become a writer. Then he fell in love with the daughter of a white homesteader in his region. The difference in races thwarted this love affair, but the charged subject of interracial romance would become Micheaux’s principal theme as both author and filmmaker. In real life, Micheaux married a black Chicago woman but was unable to sustain the union when his father-in-law interfered.
In 1913 Micheaux wrote his thinly veiled memoir, The Conquest, in which the hero, named Oscar Devereaux, settles on a homestead in South Dakota, falls in love with a white woman he is unable to marry, and is cheated out of his property by a devious father-in-law. A small Midwestern press published The Conquest for Micheaux, and the would-be author peddled his book door-to-door in order to sell it. He was particularly successful finding readers when he took a selling trip to the South and found a black readership. Micheaux was so encouraged by his southern trip, in fact, that he followed the same door-to-door selling plan with his second book, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races, published in 1915.
In general, Micheaux filled the plots of his books and screenplays with adventure and romance, returning again and again to the theme of interracial love and the stress of living in a mostly-white community. In his 1917 effort, The Homesteader, for instance, the hero is once again a homesteader in South Dakota who is married to a black woman but in love with a white neighbor. This time love triumphs when the wife commits suicide after discovering that her father has swindled her, and the white neighbor learns that she is, in part, of African heritage. Micheaux peddled The Homesteader the same way he had his other books. This title proved particularly popular and found a readership far in excess of the author’s expectations.
The success of The Homesteader as a novel brought Micheaux an offer from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, an outfit that produced movies—starring black actors—mainly for viewing by black audiences. Audacious and self-assured as always, Micheaux refused to sell the rights to the story unless the Lincoln Company agreed that he could direct the film himself. When the company refused, Micheaux took the idea on the road, selling stock at $75 per share to his book customers until he had amassed enough capital to shoot the film on his own.
“Thus began a pattern Micheaux followed for the next 30 years,” wrote Gehr. “He’d shoot a film in the spring and summer, edit it in the fall, then travel with a driver throughout the Northeast, South and East, where he would show stills of his stars to ghetto theater owners.” The theater owners would then buy the film for display— and they would often toss in an advance toward Micheaux’s next project. It was this dynamic face-to-face salesmanship that provided the continuity in Micheaux’s career. Many other black filmmakers went bankrupt, but Micheaux, despite numerous financial setbacks, was able to produce and sell films with regularity.
Some scholars estimate that Micheaux created 48 feature-length motion pictures. Fewer than fifteen survive today due to the deterioration and flammable nature of the old film stock. The first Micheaux feature was The Homesteader, based on his book. Soon thereafter he began to produce movies in the standard American genres— Western, detective, romance, melodrama—featuring all-black casts. To say that Micheaux worked on shoestring budgets is putting it mildly. His films were crudely and quickly shot, many with natural lighting. Actors forgot lines in mid-sentence, and stage hands sometimes found themselves intruding upon the action-in-progress. The few outtakes remaining after the final cut might find their way into the next feature, and stories and footage were used over and over again.
In his films Micheaux did not care to offer realistic portrayals of the lives of people of color in the inner city of his time. He preferred to entertain his audience with stories of affluent, or at least upwardly-mobile African Americans, and he adhered to the same philosophy of self-improvement that had formed the backbone of his novels. Still, it was impossible to avoid racial issues entirely.
As Gehr explained it: “Micheaux’s novels and films constitute intriguing representations of key events in his life and times. The themes of interracial love, wrongful accusation and racial prejudice—both white versus black and light-skinned versus dark-skinned blacks—repeat themselves with an obsessiveness verging on compulsion…. Micheaux worked during a time when blackness was still mysterious and threatening to most whites…. [He] was profoundly ambivalent about his race… and this love-hate relationship expressed itself in all his work. For every film seeming to focus on alcohol, gambling and drugs, there was another celebrating black achievement, and his analysis of racial politics still overwhelms all subsequent efforts.”
Especially in the 1920s and 1930s, Micheaux’s films were extremely popular in the so-called “ghetto movie houses” and other venues catering to black audiences. The stars of his films—Lorenzo Tucker, the “colored Valentino,” Bee Freeman, the “sepia Mae West,” and Slick Chester, the “colored Cagney”—became favorites in the black community. Famed actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson made his motion picture debut in the 1925 Micheaux vehicle Body and Soul, and Robert Earl Jones (father of actor James Earl Jones) appeared in two Micheaux films, The Notorious Elinor Lee and Lying Lips. Other than serving as an actor, Micheaux filled just about every niche in the movie-making process himself. He wrote the scripts, directed, edited, and marketed his features himself from his own production company in New York City. He was thus one of the first successful independent filmmakers of any race, and a pioneer for Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Mario Van Peebles, and other African Americans who would enter the field a half-century later.
Very little of Micheaux’s work survives today—only two of an estimated 27 silent films and a dozen or so talking pictures—and what does remain has drawn its share of criticism. Some critics from the black community reportedly contended that Micheaux’s films actually compounded the problem of racial stereotyping that was so prevalent among the major studio releases of the era.
In Film Comment, J. Hoberman likewise maintained that Micheaux, “in his success as a self-made entrepreneur, … was as American as anyone—if not more so. Trapped in a ghetto, but unwilling or unable to directly confront America’s racism, Micheaux displaced his rage on his own people. In other words, part of the price that he paid for his Americanness was the internalization of American racial attitudes.”
Micheaux made his last feature film, The Betrayal, in 1948. It was one of the few movies he made that was shown in mainstream theaters, and it was not terribly successful. By that time Micheaux was struggling with arthritis that would eventually confine him to a wheelchair. He had spent the years of World War II writing novels and visiting the South for speaking engagements. He was on just such a promotional tour in 1951 when he died in a hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For quite a few years after his death, Oscar Micheaux was nearly a forgotten man. Then the honors began to accrue. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even though he never made a motion picture in that town. In 1988, his grave in Great Bend, Kansas, was covered with a monument that reads: “A man ahead of his time.” Most importantly, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame immortalized the director with its Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony, an annual occasion celebrating black contributions to the American cinema.
Perhaps the most important single figure in the history of race movies, Micheaux is remembered today not so much for the content of his films as for the fact that he made them—so many of them—for an audience overlooked or insulted by Hollywood in the days when discrimination ruled American society even down to its forms of entertainment. Richard Gehr called Micheaux “cinema’s most mysterious and prolific African-American auteur,” adding: “This ultimate hyphenate increasingly demands attention as the driven spiritual predecessor of the relatively few black directors to make an impact since.”
The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, by the Pioneer, Woodruff, 1913.
The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races, Western Book Supply, 1915.
The Homesteader, Western Book Supply, 1917.
The Wind from Nowhere, New York Book Supply, 1944.
The Case of Mrs. Wingate, New York Book Supply, 1945.
The Story of Dorothy Stanfield, Based on a Great Insurance Swindle, and a Woman, New York Book Supply, 1946.
The Masquerade: An Historical Novel, New York Book Supply, 1947.
Also author of screenplays, including The Homesteader, Body and Soul, The Notorious Elinor Lee, Lying Lips, and The Betrayal, among others.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Viking, 1973, pp. 109-16.
Cripps, Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 183-93, 342-46.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance, Gale, 1986, pp. 218-25.
Leab, Daniel J., From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Salley, Columbus, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.
Sampson, Henry T., Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, Scarecrow Press, 1977, pp. 42–55.
American Film, May 1991, pp. 34–39.
Ebony, February 1993, pp. 156–60.
Emerge, November 1993, p. 86.
Film Comment, July-August 1980, pp. 7–12; October 1985, pp. 31–46.
New York Times, October 22, 1990, p. C-13.
South Dakota Review, winter 1973, pp. 62–69.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Johnson, Anne. "Micheaux, Oscar 1884–1951." Contemporary Black Biography. 1994. Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870900052.html
Johnson, Anne. "Micheaux, Oscar 1884–1951." Contemporary Black Biography. 1994. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870900052.html
Nationality: American. Born: Metropolis, Illinois, 1884. Family: Married actress Alice Russell, 1929. Career: Pullman porter, then farmer, South Dakota, to 1914; published The Homesteader, 1914; founder, Western Book and Supply Company, Sioux City, Iowa, 1915; founded Micheaux Film and Book Corporation (later Micheaux Pictures Corporation), based in Sioux City and Chicago, to produce film version of The Homesteader, 1918; established office in New York City, 1921; company filed for bankruptcy, 1928, reorganized 1929; directed first "all-talkie," The Exile, 1931. Died: In Charlotte, North Carolina, c. 1951.
Films as Director, Producer, Scriptwriter and Editor:
The Homesteader; Circumstantial Evidence
Within Our Gates
Deceit; The Gunsaulus Mystery
Son of Satan; Birthright
Body and Soul
The House behind the Cedars
A Daughter of the Congo
Ten Minutes to Live; The Girl from Chicago
Swing; Underworld; Temptation
Miracle in Harlem
Lying Lips; Birthright (sound version)
The Notorious Elinor Lee
By MICHEAUX: article—
Article in Philadelphia Afro-American, 24 January 1925.
On MICHEAUX: books—
Sampson, Henry, Blacks in Black and White, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1977.
Young, Joseph A., Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of BlackInferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux, Westport, Connecticut, 1989.
Green, J. Ronald, Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux, Bloomington, Indiana, 2000.
Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spencer, Writing Himself into History:Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2000.
On MICHEAUX: articles—
Cox, Clinton, "We Were Stars in Those Days," in New York SundayNews, 9 March 1975.
Fontenot, Chester J., Jr., "Oscar Micheaux, Black Novelist and Film Maker," in Vision and Refuge, edited by Frederick C. Luebke, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1982.
Bowser, P., "Oscar Micheaux, le pionnier," in CinémAction (Paris), January 1988.
Grupenhoff, R., "The Rediscovery of Oscar Micheaux, Black Film Pioneer," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Winter 1988.
Green, J.R., and H. Neal Jr., "Oscar Micheaux and Racial Slur: A Response to 'The Rediscovery of Oscar Micheaux,"' in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Fall 1988.
Gehr, R., "One-man Show," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 16, no. 5, May 1991.
Regester, Charlene, "The Misreading and Rereading of African-American Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux," in Film History (London), vol. 7, no. 4, Winter 1995.
Green, J. Ronald, "Oscar Micheaux's Interrogation of Caricature as Entertainment," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 51, no. 3, Spring 1998.
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Until the late 1940s, film roles for blacks in Hollywood were clichéd and demeaning: mammies, butlers, maids, Pullman porters, all decimating the English language while happily, mindlessly serving their white masters. As a result, independent filmmakers—a majority of whom were white—produced approximately three hundred "race" films especially for ghetto audiences. Easily the most famous and prolific of these filmmakers was a black man, Oscar Micheaux, a one-man production and distribution company who shot over thirty features between 1918 and 1948.
Micheaux's origins—and even an accurate list of his films—cannot be clearly determined, at least from existing volumes on the black cinema, but several facts are certain. Micheaux was a vigorous promoter who toured the nation's black ghettos, establishing contact with community leaders and convincing theater owners to screen his films. He would then dispatch his actors for personal appearances.
Micheaux's budgets were meager, between $10,000 and $20,000 per feature, and he economized on sets, shooting schedules, and behind-the-scenes personnel. He often filmed a complete feature on a single set, which may have been a private home or office. Scenes were rarely shot in more than one take; if an actor blew his lines, he just recovered his composure and completed his business. As a result, production values and performances were generally dreadful.
Some of Micheaux's films do attempt to address serious issues. Within Our Gates features a sequence in which a black is lynched. Birthright (the 1939 version) is the tale of a black Harvard graduate who experiences opposition from those of his own race as well as whites. God's Stepchildren centers on a light-skinned black who tries to pass for white. Because of this subject matter, Micheaux was occasionally threatened by local censors.
However, the filmmaker was concerned mostly with entertaining and earning profits, not with controversy. Actors' screen personas were modelled after those of contemporary Hollywood stars: Lorenzo Tucker was the "Black Valentino" and, after the advent of sound, the "colored William Powell"; Bee Freeman became the "sepia Mae West"; Slick Chester the "colored Cagney"; Ethel Moses the "negro Harlow." Plotlines also mirrored those of Hollywood products: The Underworld is a gangster film; Temptation, a De Mille-like sex epic; Daughter of the Congo, a melodrama set in Africa. Micheaux also directed the first all-talking black independent feature, The Exile, and 26-year-old Paul Robeson made his screen debut in a Micheaux melodrama, Body and Soul.
"Micheaux, Oscar." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406801311.html
"Micheaux, Oscar." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. 2001. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406801311.html