Oscar Micheaux, Pioneer: From Farmer to Filmmaker

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

The name Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is a holy one among fans of African American cinema. Not unlike his opposite number among white film makers, D.W. Griffith, he wasn’t the first, but he was the first to leave a large footprint. Micheaux directed close to four dozen films from 1919 through 1948, writing and producing most of them himself, employing hundreds of African American artists and craftspeople, and entertaining countless audiences.

The son of a former Kentucky slave, Micheaux was raised on an Illinois farm, not far from the Kentucky border. In his late teens he moved north to Chicago to make his fortune. There he worked in stockyards and steel mills, shined shoes, and eventually secured a job as a Pullman porter. Then, with his savings from years of steady employment, he moved to South Dakota and homesteaded! It may seem ironic for someone to save up a nest egg only to return to the hard work of farming, but the story still had a Horatio Alger arc to it of sorts.  Micheaux simply liked being his own boss.

In 1913, he penned his first book, a novel called Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. This was followed by The Forger Note (1915), and The Homesteader: A Novel (1917). The last book came to the attention of George Johnson of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company who was interested in adapting it for the screen. But Micheaux was constitutionally unable to cede artistic control to the producers. So he founded his own movie company, the Micheaux Film and Book Company. Naturally this undertaking was beyond even his savings account. To finance the venture he sold stock to many of his former contacts from his days as a Pullman porter.

Micheaux’s film version of The Homesteader came out in 1919. It did so well that he continued to release a steady stream of 2-3 films per year for the next two decades. Known as “race films”, Micheaux’s movies featured all-black casts, and told African American stories, targeted to African American audiences. Most of his films were melodramas with controversial themes in the Pre-Code mode, with titles like A Son of Satan (1924), The Conjure Woman (1926), The Wages of Sin (1929), A Daughter of the Congo (1930), Black Magic (1932), Harlem After Midnight (1934), and Murder in Harlem (1935). His stars included Paul Robeson, Robert Earl Jones (James Earl Jones’ father), the Tutt Brothers, Tim Moore, boxer Sam Langford, Lawrence Chenault, Evelyn Preer, Lorenzo Tucker, Ethel Moses, Edna Mae Harris, and Micheaux’s wife and sometime co-producer Alice B. Russell.

As with many early directors of the white cinema like Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith, Micheaux’s films were increasingly criticized for their technical and grammatical crudity in the talking era. Micheaux’s films of the ’30s are static and stilted for their time, and suffer in comparison to the mainstream Hollywood product of the major studios due to his barebones budgets. Today, like as not, he is likely to be lionized for persevering as well as he did in the face of the challenges, rather than being castigated for making cheap-looking movies, as he sometimes was in his own day. In 1940 he quit for a time, and returned to writing fiction. Four more books emerged during the decade: The Wind from Nowhere (1941) , The Case of Mrs. Wingate (1944), The Story of Dorothy Stanfield (1946) and Masquerade: A Historical Novel (1947). In 1948 he gave the cinema one last try with The Betrayal. It was widely panned.

Today Micheaux is rightfully hailed and honored as a cinematic pioneer, not just for the fact of his example, but for the quality of his content. His name ought to be known by every student of film, if not every school kid.