Micheaux, Oscar 1884–1951

views updated May 18 2018

Oscar Micheaux 18841951

Filmmaker, author

Pioneer Roots and an Enterprising Spirit

Began Trend in Race Films

Honored by Cinematic Community After His Death

Selected writings


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 filmsmotion 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 filmsand 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 Micheauxs 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 Americas notions of a Negros place. The critic added: To appreciate Micheauxs films one must understand that he was moving as far as possible from Hollywoods 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.

Pioneer Roots and an Enterprising Spirit

The facts of Oscar Micheauxs 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 Tolstons 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; Gods 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. Oscars 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 Micheauxs 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 authors expectations.

Began Trend in Race Films

The success of The Homesteader as a novel brought Micheaux an offer from the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, an outfit that produced moviesstarring black actorsmainly 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. Hed 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 Micheauxs next project. It was this dynamic face-to-face salesmanship that provided the continuity in Micheauxs 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, melodramafeaturing 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: Micheauxs novels and films constitute intriguing representations of key events in his life and times. The themes of interracial love, wrongful accusation and racial prejudiceboth white versus black and light-skinned versus dark-skinned blacksrepeat 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, Micheauxs films were extremely popular in the so-called ghetto movie houses and other venues catering to black audiences. The stars of his filmsLorenzo Tucker, the colored Valentino, Bee Freeman, the sepia Mae West, and Slick Chester, the colored Cagneybecame 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 Micheauxs work survives todayonly two of an estimated 27 silent films and a dozen or so talking picturesand what does remain has drawn its share of criticism. Some critics from the black community reportedly contended that Micheauxs 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 anyoneif not more so. Trapped in a ghetto, but unwilling or unable to directly confront Americas 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.

Honored by Cinematic Community After His Death

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 themso many of themfor 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 cinemas 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.

Selected writings

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. 4255.


American Film, May 1991, pp. 3439.

Ebony, February 1993, pp. 15660.

Emerge, November 1993, p. 86.

Film Comment, July-August 1980, pp. 712; October 1985, pp. 3146.

New York Times, October 22, 1990, p. C-13.

South Dakota Review, winter 1973, pp. 6269.

Anne Janette Johnson

Micheaux, Oscar

views updated Jun 27 2018

Micheaux, Oscar

January 2, 1884
March 25, 1951

The novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois, one of thirteen children of former slaves Swan and Bell Micheaux. The early events of his life are not clear and must be gleaned from several fictionalized versions he published. He evidently worked as a Pullman porter, acquiring enough capital to buy two 160-acre tracts of land in South Dakota, where he homesteaded. Micheaux's homesteading experiences were the basis of his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913). In order to publicize the book, Micheaux established the Western Book Supply Company and toured the Midwest. He sold most of the books, and stock in his first company, to white farmers, although his later ventures were financed by African-American entrepreneurs. From his bookselling experiences, he wrote a second novel, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915). Micheaux's third novel, The Homesteader (1917), attracted the attention of George P. Johnson, who, with his Hollywood actor brother Noble, owned the Lincoln Film Company, with offices in Los Angeles and Omaha. The Johnson brothers were part of the first wave of African-American independent filmmakers to take up the challenge to D. W. Griffith's white supremacist version of American History, The Birth of a Nation (1915), and produce their own stories of African-American life. Fascinated by the new medium, Micheaux offered to sell the Johnson Brothers film rights to his novel, on the condition that he direct the motion picture version. When they refused, Micheaux decided to produce and direct the film himself, financing it through what became the Micheaux Book and Film Company, with offices located in New York, Chicago, and Sioux City, Iowa.

The film version of Micheaux's third novel, The Homesteader (released in 1918), was the first of about fifty films he directed. He distributed the films himself, carrying the prints from town to town, often for one-night stands. His films played mostly in white-owned (but often black-managed) black theaters both in the North and the South. He even had some luck convincing southern white cinema owners to let him show his films at all-black matinees and interracial midnight shows in white theaters. While the black press at the time sometimes criticized Micheaux for projecting a rich black fantasy world and ignoring ghetto problems, he dealt frankly with such social themes as interracial relationships, "passing," intraracial as well as interracial prejudice, and the intimidation of African Americans by the Ku Klux Klan.

Micheaux's second film, Within Our Gates (1919), contains a disturbing sequence representing a white lynch mob hanging an innocent black man and his wife. When Micheaux tried to exhibit the film in Chicago, less than a year after a major race riot in that city, both black and white groups urged city authorities to ban the film. Micheaux's response to such censorship was to cut and reedit his films as he traveled from town to town. Showman and entrepreneur that he was, he would promote a film that had been banned in one town by indicating in the next town that it contained "censored" footage. Produced on a shoestring, his films earned him just enough money to continue his filmmaking.

Some twelve of Micheaux's films are extant, and they give an idea, though incomplete, of his style. His interior scenes are often dimly lit, but his location scenes of urban streets are usually crisp and clear, providing a documentary-like glimpse of the period. He seldom had money for more than one take, with the result that the actors' mistakes sometimes became part of the final film. However, Micheaux had a genius for negotiating around tight budgets, improvising with limited resources, and synchronizing production with distribution. In the early 1920s, in order to purchase the rights to African-American author Charles Waddell Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900), he offered the author shares in his film company.

To create appeal for his films, Micheaux features some of the most talented African-American actors of his time, including Andrew Bishop, Lawrence-Chenault, A. B. Comithiere, Lawrence Criner, Shingzie Howard, and Evelyn Preer, many of whom were associated with the Lafayette Players stock company. The actor and singer Paul Robeson (18981976) made his first motion picture appearance in Micheaux's Body and Soul (1924), in a dual role as both a venal preacher and his virtuous brother. Micheaux returned often to the theme of the hypocritical preacher, a portrait inspired by the betrayal of his father-in-law, a Chicago minister. Of the actors whom Micheaux made celebrities in the black community, the most notable was Lorenzo Tucker, a handsome, light-skinned actor dubbed "the colored Valentino." Micheaux's films also featured cabaret scenes, chorus line dancers, and, after the coming of sound, jazz musicians and comedians.

Although his company went bankrupt in 1928, Micheaux managed to survive the early years of the Depression, continuing to produce silent films. Although Daughter of the Congo (1930) featured some songs and a musical score, The Exile (1931) was thought to be the first African-American-produced all-talking picture. Micheaux went on to make a number of sound films, but many moments in these films were technically compromised because his technicians could not surmount the challenges produced by the new sound-recording technology. In the late 1930s, after the brief notoriety of God's Stepchildren (1937), Micheaux's film activities began to wind down and he returned to writing novels. He published The Wind from Nowhere (1941), a reworking of The Homesteader, and three other novels during the next five years. In 1948 he produced a large-budget version of The Wind from Nowhere, titled The Betrayal and billed as the first African-American motion picture to play in major white theaters. However, the film received unfavorable reviews in the press, including the New York Times. At a time of his decline in popularity as both novelist and filmmaker, Micheaux died during a promotional tour in 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Micheaux's work was first rediscovered by film scholars in the early 1970s. However, these critics still disdained the wooden acting and unmatched shots in his films, and they decried what they thought to be the escapist nature of his stories. More recent critics, however, have hailed Micheaux as a maverick stylist who understood, but was not bound by, classical Hollywood cutting style; who used precious footage economically; who was adept in his use of the flashback device; and whose "rough draft" films were vaguely avant-garde. However, Micheaux is not recognized for his "protest" films and his use of social types to oppose caricature rather than to reinforce stereotype.

Thus, though largely ignored during his lifetime, Micheaux began to receive recognition in the later twentieth century. The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inaugurated an annual Oscar Micheaux Award in 1974. In 1985, the Directors' Guild posthumously presented Micheaux with a special Golden Jubilee Award, and in 1987 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The recent discovery of prints of two silent Micheaux films, Within Our Gates (1919) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), in archives in Spain and Belgium, respectively, has increased the interest in his work.

See also Chesnutt, Charles W.; Film; Robeson, Paul


Bowser, Pearl, Jane Gaines, Charles Musser, eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gaines, Jane M. "Fire and Desire: Race, Melodrama, and Oscar Micheaux." In Black American Cinema: History, Theory, Criticism, edited by Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Green, Ron. "Oscar Micheaux's Production Values." In Black American Cinema: History, Theory, Criticism, edited by Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. "A Filmography of Oscar Micheaux: America's Legendary Black Filmmaker." In Celluloid Power, edited by David Platt. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Regester, Charlene. "Lynched, Assaulted, and Intimidated: Oscar Micheaux's Most Controversial Films." Popular Culture Review 5, no. 1 (February 1994): 4755.

jane gaines (1996)

charlene regester (1996)
Updated bibliography

Micheaux, Oscar

views updated May 18 2018


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:

(partial list)


The Homesteader; Circumstantial Evidence


Within Our Gates


Deceit; The Gunsaulus Mystery


The Dungeon


Son of Satan; Birthright


Body and Soul


The House behind the Cedars


Easy Street


A Daughter of the Congo


The Exile


Ten Minutes to Live; The Girl from Chicago


Swing; Underworld; Temptation


Miracle in Harlem


God's Stepchildren


Lying Lips; Birthright (sound version)


The Notorious Elinor Lee


The Betrayal


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.

* * *

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.

—Rob Edelman

Micheaux, Oscar

views updated May 17 2018


In a career that began in l9l9, Oscar Micheaux (January 2, l884–March 26, 1951) produced more than forty "race movies"—motion pictures made for African-American audiences—a record unmatched in American cinema history. What little is known of his early life is derived from scattered sources such as family lore, a few elusive public records, and autobiographical themes and sequences in several of his movies, and from seven self-published, often thinly veiled, autobiographical novels. An adherent of Booker T. Washington's ideology of black entrepreneurship and "self-help," Micheaux spent much of his youth homesteading on the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota, doing a stint as a railroad porter on Pullman sleeping cars, and as the author and publisher of his novels. Beginning with his first movie, The Homesteader (l9l9), he took up themes that Hollywood filmmakers ignored: social dramas rooted in racial issues, tales of black striving and achievement, and plots that sometimes turned on false or mistaken racial identities.

At first the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression stifled Micheaux and other makers of race movies. In addition to audiences shrunken by their economic plight and a paucity of sources of capital, the new medium of "talkies" also proved a daunting obstacle, at least until the Harlem theater owner Frank Schiffman backed Micheaux's reentry into production. The Great Depressionthereafter reenergized Micheaux's work and sharpened its focus on his familiar themes of black ambition woven into episodes of his own life story. The Exile (1931) was typical of his work during this period in that its sources were Micheaux's own autobiographical novel The Conquest (l913) and a reworking of his silent film The Homesteader. In another instance of his using the Depression as an inspiration for a remake, Micheaux reworked Birthright (1924, l938), a "story of the Negro in the South," that he derived from a novel by the white Pulitzer Prize-winning populist writer T. S. Stribling. As adapted by Micheaux, its story centered on a black Harvard graduate who struggles against Southern racial morés in an attempt to found a school for African-American children.

The Depression touched Micheaux in yet another way. He began to relocate his settings in northern cities, where he created a tension between black plight at the hands of the white South as against the new perils of life in the North, where poverty was accompanied by black crime, violence, and the breakup of the family under the stress of urban life. His heroes were often achievers and gogetters, while the heavies were criminals who preyed upon African Americans, as in The Girl from Chicago (l932). Or, as in Underworld (l937), the movies were cautionary tales warning of a too hasty rejection of the sturdy values of "the Southland" in favor of the hollow glamour of the urban underworld. Sometimes, a familiar genre such as a backstage romance in which the hero strives to crash Broadway—as in his Swing (l938)—also included a subplot that took up some social issue such as, in this instance, the abuse of women by black men idled by slumping urban economies even as their women became breadwinners as domestic servants.

With the onset of World War II and a consequent liberalizing of racial depictions in Hollywood movies, race moviemakers suffered. Micheaux offered his services to the government's propaganda arm, the Office of War Information, pointing out that "we are never shown on the screen in . . . the war effort," but with no recorded response from Washington. Thus Micheaux's work during the Great Depression constituted both a high moment in the history of the race movie as well as its swan song.



Bowser, Pearl; Jane Gaines; and Charles Musser; eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. 2001.

Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. 2001.

Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, l900–l942. l977.

Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era. 2001.

Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. 2000.

VanEpps-Taylor, Betti Carol. Oscar Micheaux: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker, A Biography. l999.

Thomas Cripps