Celebrating Black History Month – Oscar Micheaux, Pioneering Film Maker

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Oscar Micheaux was born January 2nd, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. In his early life, he worked several jobs – coal miner, stockyards worker, and Pullman porter, before he settled in Gregory County, North Dakota, after acquiring more than 300 initial acres of land in 1905. His experiences working the land, which he had to learn from scratch, gave inspiration for his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer”, which was published in 1913. he later rewrote this story, and it became “The Homesteader”, self-published in 1917. He sold the book door-to-door wherever, and to whomever, he could. The African American Johnson Brothers, who owned the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, in Los Angeles, tried to buy the rights to make “The Homesteader” into a movie, but as they were unprepared to let Micheaux direct the film, nor endow it with the large budget he thought it should have, in 1918 Micheaux changed his own book publishing company into the Micheaux Film and Book Co., in Chicago and began to raise money to make the film. He sold shares of stock in his new company and was able to gather the necessary money to start production on the film of his novel in Chicago.
“The Homesteader” (1919) took up 8 reels of film, which made it the very first full feature-length film made by an African American.
The film starred Charles D. Lucas, Evelyn Preer, and Iris Hall and was Oscar’s first foray into the so-called ‘race-film’ industry.

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Race Films were a thing in the USA from 1910 until the end of WW II. They were made by Blcks for black audiences. These films were in reaction to Segregation laws in theaters and being kept out of the Hollywood system.
Race films were a way to directly contradict the negative images of African Americans that predominated in that era of film making.
Obviously, these black film makers often produced films of relatively low quality, due to budget and production constants, but they were still valuable for how they upended the common stereotypes and myths attached to African Americans.

Oscar Micheaux hustled his films like he had hustled his books. No possible market was deemed off-limits or out of range to him. He would re-edit the film print to suit the demands of whatever local censorship boards or theaters he could sell his film to.he went all over the USA as the ambassador and salesman of his product. He even went overseas, to places like Europe and South America to secure new markets.
Between the years 1919 to 1940, Micheaux produced more than 40 films and he was active as a novelist, also, until his death.

Micheaux made films for black people, about black people, and starring black people.
This was somewhat revolutionary, since African Americans rarely until this time got to see worthwhile portrayals of themselves in motion pictures. Oscar Micheaux bucked every trend by casting blacks as businessmen, heroes, detectives, teachers, clergy – in fact, in Oscar Micheaux’s films, blacks could be anything they dreamed of, not just servants, slaves, and thugs. This made his films very popular, although not always with the critics, nor indeed the censors! But black folk enjoyed seeing what they could be one day, depicted in the films of Micheaux.

His second film was a direct rebuttal of the content and messages in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, which basically was a movie length commercial for the Ku Klux Klan, and institutionalized racism in general. Oscar countered the hatred of that film with 1920’s “Within Our Gates”. This film went toe to to with ‘Birth of a Nation”, pointing out the lies, false stereotypes and pure hatred that were being glorified and perpetuated to justify racial hatred towards black people.

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But Micheaux was a versatile film maker – his library eventually included westerns, detective stories, comedies, musicals,gangster films, and even romance stories.
He liked to include themes of intermarriage, legal/racial injustice, and blacks passing for whites.
In so doing, he was pointing out the flaws of a racist society and chipping away at the barriers to progress that frustrated so many African Americans of the time. He encouraged black people to believe in what they could be and not to settle for what they were only allowed to be.

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His anti-stereotype characters in his films were uplifting and encouraging to his black audience who knew they were, and could be, more than they were traditionally allowed.
Oscar Micheaux has been described as “a man 50 years ahead of his time”, and that is probably very close to the truth.

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He broke down the stereotypes depicted in films, he wrote produced and directed a body of work that, for the time, was unmatched by anybody else of ANY color.
What Oscar Micheaux did while living in an age in America’s history in which African Americans were being penalized, tortured, murdered and imprisoned merely for having different colored skin; to change perceptions of both whites and blacks about racial politics and stereotypes was, quite honestly, incredible and took some large measure of bravery to go against the norms of the time.

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Without Oscar Micheaux and his contemporary film makers, we might not have yet reached a more enlightened age like the one we now live in which we have (and have had) such people as Gordon Parks, Robert Towsend, John Singleton, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, Tyler Perry, Kasi Lemmons, Lee Daniels, Ernest Dickerson, and so, so many others out there now, or who are yet to be.

We can never know if Micheaux could foresee a time when Black films, made by Black film makers, about the Black Experience would be closer to being the norm than he would ever experience in his lifetime, but he was definitely onto something, and he definitely laid a critical part of the foundation for the imminent Black Film Renaissance.

Eventually, we will reach a time when it is just ‘Film’. Not Black Film, not White Film, not Foreign Film…just – Film. Made by everybody, including everybody, about everybody, and for everybody.

Eventually.

Hopefully.

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Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced and directed more than 40 feature-length films, and wrote. 7 novels. He passed way on March 25th,1951, while on a business trip in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He is buried with other members of his family in the Great Bend Cemetery, in Kansas.

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