Oscar Micheaux: The First Major African American Film Director

Oscar Michaeux is regarded by most historians as the first major African-American director in film history and was the first to produce a feature-length film The Homesteader in 1919. He was also a pioneer of independent cinema.

As a prominent director and writer of low-budgeted “race films” in the 1920s, Micheaux created movies with a sense of reality that was not present in major studio films at the time. Micheaux’s movies were set in a world where Blacks and Whites lived together, but with segregation, rather than a Blacks-only utopia that was depicted in other similar movies.

Born in 1884, Oscar Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois. He was the fifth of thirteen children of former slaves. His parents moved their family to the city so that they would get a better education.

The family sent Oscar Michaeux to a reputable school but financial worries meant that the family had to return to the farm.

Michaeux worked on many jobs such as a shoeshine boy and a farmworker, and would soon be running a large farm in South Dakota in 1913. At the same time, Michaeux had written and published a semi-autobiographical novel The Conquest, and would write at least ten more.

The pioneering all-black studio The Lincoln Film Company, founded by  Noble Johnson and George Johnson in 1916, offered to make a film version of his novel The Homesteader in 1917 but after negotiations had broken down, Micheaux decided to make the film himself at Chicago’s defunct Selig Studio. Following the film’s release in 1918, Michaeux became a successful filmmaker.

Michaeux raised money for his forty or more films by selling shares to the communities and by taking advanced bookings from Black specialist cinemas.

However, Micheaux’s work is mostly ignored by film historians because some questioned the artistry and technical quality of his pictures.

But some of Micheaux’s films pushed boundaries. In The Homesteader, a black homesteader in the Dakotas falls in love with a white woman and problems persist. This film was daring because it was released during the era of the Jim Crow Laws and segregation meaning black people did not have the same education as white people.  

It appears that his earliest surviving, and most essential piece, is Within Our Gates, which was Micheaux’s answer to the artistically important but racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith. There is a flashback segment, which is similar to a scene in Griffith’s film, detailing Sylvia Landry’s (Evelyn Preer) plight, showing the xenophobia leading up to the lynching of her parents (William Starks and Mattie Peters) and attempted rape by a thug (Grant Gorman) who turns out to be her father.

Michaeux showed graphic depictions of the lynching of men, women, and children. His cinematic universe is a different one to the racism depicted by white supremacists, such as author Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith, showing the African Americans as victims in a racist society and depicting what was happening.

Michaeux made over forty films between 1919 and 1948, but only a few have survived, and some of his later films, especially the critically lambasted God’s Step Children in 1938, have generated controversy by the negative attitude towards African-Americans in the dialogue.

By the late forties, “race films” had seen a decline, mostly due to expensive marketing and production, and that African American performers were finding more parts in major Hollywood films, with a promise of more integration to come. Even the tiny production costs did not deter their decline and thus ending the careers of Michaaux, Alexander, and Williams.

Oscar Michaeux died of heart failure on March 25th, 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but he is remembered as “A man ahead of his time” as written on his gravestone in Great Bend Cemetery, Kansas.

His legacy must never be forgotten.

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