Learning Black History Year Round: Pioneer of Independent Cinema, Oscar Devereaux Micheaux

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Of the many creative people who collaborate on a motion picture, the director is regarded as the pivotal individual who serves as both the guiding force behind the project’s effective content and box-office success.

Historically, Hollywood has opened its doors to only a small number of African-American film directors. The first to break through the cinematic ceiling was author, film director and independent producer Oscar Devereaux Micheaux (1884–1951.) His first film, “The Homesteader” (1919), a black-and-white silent, prompted a series of nationwide tours of Black neighborhoods.

An ad for the film placed in the Chicago Defender read: “Destined to mark a new epoch in achievements of the Darker Races!” According to writer Will Sloan, the film’s, “frank treatment of religion and miscegenation led to battles with censor boards and curiosity from audiences, who had never encountered a film that dealt with such topics from a Black point of view.”

Produced by Micheaux Film & Book Company of Sioux City in Chicago, “The Homesteader,” a film about a Black homesteader in the Dakotas who falls in love with the daughter of a Scottish widower, quickly became a box-office success, so much so that all available prints were played into deterioration.
The boom in race-film (as films made for Black audiences were called then) production was born.

As a filmmaker, Micheaux, born near Metropolis, Ill., was considered, “50 years ahead of his time.” He left home at age 17 for Chicago, where he worked first as a waiter. Restless and dissatisfied, he would later work several jobs, including in the stockyards and the steel mill. But he craved independence. So after an employment agency, “swindled him out of two dollars,” he decided to become his own boss. His first business; a shoeshine stand inside of a well-to-do, Black-owned barbershop. And that’s where his exposure to the ins-and-outs of entrepreneurship and connections with wealthy whites began.

An avid reader, Micheaux drew inspiration from the works of Booker T. Washington and Horace Greeley, which moved him to acquire tracts of land in South Dakota, despite having no experience in farming. He also modeled his life after that of Booker T. Washington, who preached a philosophy of self-reliance for his race. This everyday life soon became the subject of Micheaux’s work.

As a homesteader, he penned his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer” (1913), then later rewrote it as “The Homesteader” (1917), initially publishing it anonymously. He then wrote about the social oppression he experienced as a young boy. It was the advent of the motion picture industry that intrigued Micheaux as another vehicle to tell his stories. Through this medium, he would produce more than 44 films.

Micheaux’s work proved vital to the overall American consciousness by providing a diverse portfolio of non-stereotyped Black characters, as well as positive images and stories of African-American life. His films were often used to oppose and discuss the racial injustice that African Americans received.
Micheaux died in March 1951.

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