Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), the son of former slaves, lived a remarkable life. He was a homesteader in South Dakota, a bestselling author of seven novels, and a filmmaker who went on to make 44 "race films," the term used for a genre of films made for black audiences with all-black casts.
The films were particularly significant because they more accurately portrayed the lives of African-Americans in the early 20th century at a time when caricatures abounded.
Micheaux's resumé was stellar, Businessman Bayer L. Mack, record label owner of Block Starz Music that releases music by rap and hip-hop artists, wondered why he wasn't better known. Mack was struck by the fact that despite Oscar Micheaux's incredible achievements, his name was almost completely forgotten by both blacks and whites of today.
"I'm a history buff and a compulsive reader," said Mack, who runs his company from Sarasota, Florida. "When I came upon Patrick McGilligan's 2007 biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, I was struck by the fact that there was virtually nothing out there about Micheaux's life, in spite of his incredible accomplishments."
Bringing Accuracy to History
Mack has invested time and money to righting the wrong that has been done to the all-but-forgotten Micheaux. Mack is in the final stages of completion of a documentary about the life and career of the filmmaker. Using Library of Congress archived footage, photos, illustrations, and vintage music, he has been releasing 10-12-minute segments of a documentary of Micheaux's life online; four segments are posted with the final two to follow shortly.
While Oscar Micheaux made inroads in many fields, perhaps his greatest contribution was in the world of film where he became known as the most prolific black filmmaker of the early 20th century, producing 44 films in the span of about 35 years.
The Significance of Race Films in the Early 20th Century
At the turn of the century, the movie business was just getting underway, and the industry was controlled by white men who were trying to master the art form. If African-Americans were portrayed in these early films, their characters were limited to stereotypes as seen by white people of the day. Mammy-type characters, subservient white-pleasing black men, and "pickaninnies" were the norm in these films. As a result, if an African-American could get into a theater to see a film, he or she would not see anything with which they could identify.
Then in 1915 D.W. Griffith brought out The Birth of a Nation, and the power of film was on full display. The movie was incredibly popular with audiences, and its outright racist message re-ignited interest in the Ku Klux Klan. Violence and intolerance against the Negro in both the North and the South increased.
Those African-Americans who were beginning to explore filmmaking wanted to respond. Bayer Mack has documented that William Foster was the first African-American filmmaker (Foster had released a short film, The Railroad Porter, before Griffith's epic). Foster countered The Birth of a Nation with his film, The Birth of a Race.
Even D.W. Griffith felt pressured to respond with a different message, and he produced Intolerance. However, the damage was done. Violence continued and the portrayal of African-Americans in these early films continued to follow negative stereotypes.
By this time, Oscar Micheaux had successfully self-published his book (first called The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, later The Homesteader). The novel closely followed Micheaux's story of homesteading in South Dakota.
As his book became better known, he was approached by an African-American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, started by William Foster's brothers. They wanted to bring Micheaux's story to the screen. Micheaux, however, wanted a hands-on role that the film company rejected so the deal fell through.
The Power of Film
Micheaux agreed that Lincoln Films had a point about storytelling via film so he converted his company to the Micheaux Film and Book Company. He raised money to make his first film by selling stock in the company and soon began filming. The Homesteader was released as an eight-reel silent film starring Evelyn Preer. It was the first full-length film made by an African-American. When it opened in Chicago in 1919, the reception of the film was excellent, so Micheaux continued to make films.
His next one was The Exile, his first film to use sound. Here, too, the plot was autobiographical with the central character leaving Chicago to operate a ranch in South Dakota. By 1924, he was showcasing new talent, and his film, Body and Soul, introduced actor Paul Robeson.
Micheaux's films contributed greatly to the portrayal of blacks, and he also advanced the film industry simply by being out there and experimenting with various techniques and processes. However, today he deserves to be remembered for leading the way to create films that told a more realistic story of the lives of African-Americans in that day.
Documentary Available Online
Businessman Bayer L. Mack is in the process of finishing a documentary on the filmmaker's life. Four of the segments of the documentary can be viewed here: "The Czar of Black Hollywood,"
The entire documentary, "Oscar Micheaux: The Czar of Black Hollywood," will be screened at the 99th Annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History Convention in Memphis, Tennessee this autumn. After its release it will be available for streaming; as well as on DVD.
In addition, a profile of Oscar Micheaux can be read at America Comes Alive.
During Black History month (February), I send out profiles of little-known African-American leaders like Oscar Micheaux. If you would like to receive the mailings, write firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Leaders" in the subject line.