The First Great African-American Filmmaker: Before Spike Lee and John Singleton, there was Oscar Micheaux

Almost a century before the 2016 protests about the lack of minority representation among Academy Awards nominees, a group of African American entrepreneurs sought to transform the predominantly white American film industry. Among the very first was Oscar Micheaux. The son of slaves and an autodidact, Micheaux became the first African American to produce a full-length feature film.

Micheaux was a revolutionary filmmaker who wrote, produced, and directed groundbreaking movies with all-black casts that countered stereotypes and explored explosive racial issues. His films addressed interracial relationships, “passing,” and lynching, taboo subjects that were central to the black experience in the early twentieth century. Micheaux sought, he later explained, to “present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life, to view the colored heart from close range. . . . [in order to] raise [African Americans] to greater heights.”

Despite limited access to capital and equipment during the Jim Crow era, Micheaux became a prolific producer of “race pictures” that were primarily restricted to theaters for African American audiences. All in all, he directed more than forty black-and-white silent or “talking pictures” over the course of his lifetime.

In spite of these impressive accomplishments, Micheaux died in poverty in 1951 at age 67 and his name gradually faded into obscurity during the decades that followed. After his death, Micheaux’s wife burned his business papers and many of his powerful films were lost over time. In recent years, however, historians have finally begun to recover much of the story of one of the nation’s earliest black filmmakers.

From Plow to Pen

Micheaux was born in 1884, just seven years after the end of the Reconstruction era. The fifth of eleven children, Micheaux grew up in Metropolis, a small town in southern Illinois where his parents moved after they were liberated from slavery following the conclusion of the Civil War. As a young boy, Micheaux attended a segregated public school which, though lacking in resources, provided him with the kind of formal instruction that was forbidden to enslaved African Americans just decades earlier.

Micheaux was an avid reader whose love of books stayed with him throughout his life: he would later produce film adaptations of literary classics by T.S. Stribling and Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Micheaux also showed an early penchant for business. Barely in his teens, he could be found at the local market selling produce. In a later semi-autobiographical novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), Micheaux wrote that, inspired by the rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, he hoped to “disprove” through his own hard work the idea that white oppression completely prevented African Americans from “grasp[ing] the many opportunities that presented themselves.” An optimistic, handsome young man with great ambition, Micheaux left Metropolis in search of adventure at the age of 16.

“While his peers described the black experience in poetry, novels, or paintings – art forms typically preferred by middle- and upper-class Americans – Micheaux sought to reach the widest possible audience through mass-oriented movies. ”

After completing a series of odd jobs in small towns near Chicago, he took a position in 1902 as a Pullman porter. While journeying out west by rail, he marveled at what he described as “the conditions of the Snake River valley and the constructiveness of the people who had turned alkali desert into valuable farms worth from fifty to five hundred dollars an acre.” This sight “thrilled” the young dreamer on his “quest of fortune” and served as “an incentive to serious thought” about becoming a farmer.

In 1904, after saving several thousand dollars’ worth of earnings, Micheaux decided to purchase unbroken land in South Dakota that was offered through a lottery to prospective settlers. He believed himself to be “the only colored homesteader” in an isolated area that he described in his autobiography as “wild, rough, and lonely.”

Over the next few years, Micheaux worked hard to establish himself as a farmer and, by 1910, he had expanded his property holdings to include 150 acres of land on which he planted corn and wheat. In 1910 he married Orlean McCracken, a woman from Chicago, but they permanently separated in 1912 after a tumultuous marriage characterized by disagreements between Micheaux and his father-in-law.That same year, Micheaux faced a severe drought that damaged his crops. Lonely, discouraged by his marital woes, and facing severe financial difficulties, he put aside his plow and turned to his pen in an effort to make a new start.

Micheaux wrote about his trying experiences as a novice farmer in The Conquest and then published two additional semi-autobiographical books, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915) and The Homesteader (1917). He established his own publishing company, The Western Book Supply Company, and traveled around the country promoting his novels. The Homesteader, the most successful of his first three books, was met with critical acclaim in black publications, sold to a black and white readership, and helped earn Micheaux the title of “one of our greatest authors,” according to the African-American newspaper The Cleveland Gazette.

The Filmmaker

In 1918, the black-owned Lincoln Motor Picture Company approached Micheaux about turning The Homesteader into a movie. Instead of relinquishing control of his story, Micheaux decided to make the movie himself. He set up his own motion picture company, the Micheaux Book and Film Company, and with capital from black and white investors, opened offices, hired actors, and wrote the script. Micheaux, who lacked any sort of formal training in the film industry, boldly launched his twenty-nine-year career as a director and producer.

When Oscar Micheaux decided to become a filmmaker in 1918, the black film industry was still in its nascent stages. African American William Foster had produced the first short film featuring all-black actors, The Railroad Porter, in 1912 while brothers George and Noble Johnson established the Lincoln Motor Picture in 1916. As blacks moved into cities and began attending hundreds of segregated theaters, Foster and the Johnsons saw a growing opportunity to produce “race pictures” with black heroes and heroines.

In adapting The Homesteader as a movie, Micheaux sought to create realistic and also inspiring representations of African Americans for audiences craving an alternative to the usual portrayals of blacks in white-produced films. Its hero was a black pioneer struggling to make a life for himself among the white population of South Dakota. As the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender observed in its review of Micheaux’s first movie, “The public has awaited a demonstration on the part of the Negro in the silent art [and] it is well to explain that that demonstration awaited is a credible, dignified achievement—and in Oscar Micheaux’s ‘The Homesteader’ this has at last come.’”

Micheaux always saw himself as a businessman and not just an artist. He considered consumer preferences when crafting his storylines and hiring actors. Furthermore, he believed that, through his own example as a successful black businessman, he could inspire other African Americans. Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies Jayna Brown contends that Micheaux believed that “economic pragmatism, not artistic virtuosity, was the key to racial uplift.” In addition, she continues, he viewed “popular fiction and film as valuable cultural commodities, as profitable vehicles of self-definition and self-representation.”

Because of his desire for commercial success, Micheaux was scorned by the black artists of the period. According to his biographer Patrick McGilligan, “Though Micheaux personally knew some of the poets, artists, and writers who dominated the cultural movement that celebrated black life” during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s,“Micheaux didn’t hold membership in the same social, political, or intellectual circles” and was “alone in preferring motion pictures as a medium.” While his peers described the black experience in poetry, novels, or paintings – art forms typically preferred by middle- and upper-class Americans – Micheaux sought to reach the widest possible audience through mass-oriented movies.

Countering Birth of a Nation

Micheaux’s films put credible black characters in situations that directly addressed what W.E. B. Du Bois had called “the color-line.” In The Homesteader, black pioneer Jean Baptiste struggles to make a life for himself among the white population of South Dakota. Although the film has been lost, a reviewer for The Chicago Defender praised Baptiste as “the embodiment of strength, courage, and conviction.”Baptiste not only contends with the challenges of farming, but, like Micheaux, who fell in love with a white woman on a neighboring farm in South Dakota, Baptiste grapples with what the Chicago Defender described as the “forbidden” love between black and white Americans. The newspaper described Baptiste as “the embodiment of strength, courage, and conviction.” Unfortunately, the film has been lost.

In his second film, Within Our Gates (1920), Micheaux issued a direct challenge to white producer David Wark “D.W.” Griffith’s portrayal of African Americans in the 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation. The highest grossing silent movie to date, Birth of a Nation portrayed the post-war South as a place in which unrestrained African Americans threatened white women. In one representative scene, a white Southern girl is chased off a cliff by a lustful ex-slave. To avenge the girl’s death, the newly established Ku Klux Klan lynches the man and leaves his body on the steps of the local lieutenant governor’s house, an act intended to justify extrajudicial white violence against black citizens.

Many African-Americans were outraged by The Birth of a Nation. According to Film Studies Professor J. Ronald Green, Micheaux was “aware” of the “repeated calls in the black press for a champion to counter the slander of Griffith and Hollywood.” Within Our Gates served as Micheaux’s low-budget answer to Griffith’s $110,000 extravaganza. He wrote the screenplay himself and filmed all the scenes in Chicago.

“Seeking to combat contemporary stereotypes of Africans as lazy or uninterested in obtaining an education, Micheaux depicted impoverished families scrimping to afford school fees.”

In Within Our Gates, the heroine, an African American schoolteacher, attempts to raise money for an underfunded, all-black school. Seeking to combat contemporary stereotypes of Africans as lazy or uninterested in obtaining an education, Micheaux depicted impoverished families scrimping to afford school fees. Micheaux also rejected Griffith’s image of white violence as a corrective to black aggression. In Within Our Gates, a white man tries to rape the black schoolteacher who, in an unexpected twist, turns out to be his illegitimate daughter. Media Studies Professor Anna Siomopoulos calls this stirring scene one of several “racial reversals” throughout the film that set “the historical record straight.”

Censors forced Micheaux to excise a good deal of material from the film, but the movie nonetheless made a powerful impact on audiences. And the popular response to Within Our Gates assured Micheaux that he had taken the right path in his life. In an interview with The Chicago Defender shortly after Within Our Gates was released, Micheaux said, “The appreciation my people have shown my maiden efforts convinces me that they want Racial photoplays, depicting Racial life, and to the task I have consecrated my mind and efforts.”

Scenes from one of Oscar Micheaux’s films Lying Lips

Two Controversial Films

Over the next decades, Micheaux boldly portrayed black men as athletes, businessmen, cunning detectives and gangsters rather than as loyal slaves or freedpeople, and he continued to produce movies that struck at the heart of racial controversies.

The House Behind the Cedars, which appeared in 1925, was an adaptation of Charles Chesnutt’s 1900 book. Chesnutt, a biracial man who grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was the first African American to address themes of “passing” and miscegenation in fiction. In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt challenged contemporary racial perceptions through his Reconstruction-era portrayal of a biracial woman who passes for white but whose fiancé rejects her when her ethnicity is revealed. Micheaux, who purchased the novel’s reproduction rights from Chesnutt for $500, set the movie in the present.

In the 1931 film, The Exile, which was his first “talking picture,” Micheaux took off again from the plot of The Homesteader. The Exile deals once again with the subjects of interracial marriage. African American farmer Jean Baptiste is torn between two love interests: Agnes, a light-skinned Scottish woman from Indiana, and Edith, a black woman from Chicago. Baptiste was more in love with Agnes, but after giving up hope of marrying a white woman, he returns to Edith. When she is killed, Baptiste is wrongly held responsible. After his release from prison, Baptiste is astonished to discover that Agnes is biracial and has been passing as white, a revelation that enables him to be marry her.

The House Behind the Cedars and The Exile challenged early twentieth-century viewers’ preconceptions about racial identity and sexual relations between whites and blacks. Reviewers of The Exile generally praised the film and black audiences were enthused, a popular response that further enhanced Micheaux’s accomplishment as what McGilligan calls the only “race-picture producer from the silent-film era” to shatter “through all the barriers and [cross] over into the sound age.”

Despite Micheaux’s successes as the nation’s first major black filmmaker, his movies failed to make enough money to keep him afloat. Micheaux filed for bankruptcy in 1928 and faced additional financial problems in the 1930s. In his final production in 1947, The Betrayal, Micheaux drew again from his own life, portraying an African American rancher. Kansas’s Plain Dealer described the movie as “a Negro’s interpretation of the race question,” a “simple story of the millions of hard working and God fearing Negroes who are struggling for their place in the sun.” Unfortunately, the movie was poorly reviewed by most African American and white critics alike. Impoverished at the end of his life, Micheaux died just four years later in unknown circumstances. Only a handful of publications acknowledged his passing.

A Posthumous Star

Micheaux, who was forgotten in the decade after his death, was rediscovered by historians during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1987, the Directors Guild acknowledged the value of Micheaux’s work by granting him a posthumous star on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk. In recent years, several of Micheaux’s lost films have been recovered and are being shown at independent cinemas with growing frequency. But sadly, the barriers and difficulties that Micheaux faced as a filmmaker have not disappeared.

Although African American actors have increasingly starred in major motion pictures, people of color continue to face discrimination. The 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy about the absence of non-white nominees highlighted the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ reluctance to recognize African American achievement in film. Research by Eliza Berman and David Johnson proved that a mere 6.4 percent of Academy Award acting nominees have been persons of color since 1929. In light of these ongoing challenges, it is even more important to celebrate Micheaux’s remarkable achievements.

Opening scene from Lying Lips starring Edna Mae Harris

Amanda Brickell Bellows is a Bernard and Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Historical Society (2016-2017).