The country’s first major Black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux (sometimes written as “Michaux”), directed and produced 44 films over the course of his career. Throughout the first half of the 20th century Micheaux depicted contemporary Black life and complex characters in his films, countering the negative on-screen portrayal of Blacks at the time.
HOMESTEADING ON THE FRONTIER
Born in 1884, Micheaux tried his hand at a number of vocations before embarking on a film career. Moving to Chicago from a small Illinois town when he was 17 years old, Michaeux shined shoes and worked in the meatpacking and steel industries before landing a job as a porter for the American railway system. This stable job allowed him to travel, save money, and make connections with wealthy people who later helped finance his films.
Operating in the first half of the 20th century, Micheaux depicted contemporary Black life and complex characters in his films, countering the negative on-screen portrayal of Blacks at the time.
In 1904, Michaeux moved to South Dakota and became a successful homesteader amid a predominantly blue-collar white population. The government’s Homestead Act allowed citizens to acquire a free plot of land to farm. Although the act included Black Americans, discrimination kept many Blacks from pursuing a homestead. Michaeux began writing about his experiences on the frontier, submitting articles to the press as well as writing novels.
WRITING AND FILM CAREER
Published in 1913, his first novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer was loosely based on his own life as a homesteader and the failure of his marriage. The novel attracted attention from a film production company in Los Angeles, which offered to adapt the book into a film. Negotiations fell apart when Michaeux wanted to be directly involved in the film’s production, and he decided to produce the film himself.
After setting up his own film and book publishing company, Michaeux released The Homesteader in 1919. The silent black-and-white film features a Black man who enters a rocky marriage with a Black woman, played by the pioneering African American actress Evelyn Preer, despite being in love with a white woman.
REALISTIC PORTRAYALS OF BLACK AMERICANS
Depicting realistic relationships between Black and white people, the film gained praise from critics, one of them calling it a “historic breakthrough, a creditable, dignified achievement.” Micheaux followed up his successful production with his second film, Within Our Gates (1920), which sought to challenge the heavy-handed racist stereotypes shown in D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation.
Micheaux used his films, the first by a Black American to be shown in white movie theaters, to portray racial injustice suffered by Black Americans, delving into topics such as lynching, job discrimination, and mob violence. Given the restrictions of the time, Micheaux’s prolific career was nothing short of groundbreaking. The acclaimed filmmaker died in 1951 at the age of 67 while on a business trip.