On January 2nd, 1814 Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois to parents Calvin and Belle Micheaux, who were former slaves. One of thirteen children, Oscar went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest surprises. As a seventeen year old, he left his home for the big city of Chicago, Illinois where he got a job as a Pullman porter. At the time this was one of the best jobs for blacks in the days of Jim Crow. By learning the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and Horace Greeley, Micheaux was able to acquire two 160-acres tracts of land in Gregory County, South Dakota, in 1905; despite having no farming experience.
After spending several years in South Dakota as a homesteader, he compiled material to use in his first novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer”; which was loosely based on his life and published in 1913. Later, in 1917, it was rewritten and became his most famous novel, “The Homesteader”. Oscar self-published and distributed the novel by going door-to-door to small businessmen and fellow homesteaders. In 1915, due to financial troubles, Micheaux lost his homestead, causing him to move to Sioux City, Iowa and establish the Western book and Supply Company, where he continued to write and sell novels.
During this time, African American film pioneers George and Noble Johnson, directors of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, were looking to make his book, “The Homesteader”, into a movie. Micheaux denied them, however, because he wanted to direct the film himself. He later reorganized the Western Book and Supply Company into the Micheaux Film and Book Company. In 1918 he produced “The Homesteader” into a film, predating Charlie Chaplin who didn’t debut until 1921. In 1920 Micheaux made his next movie, “Within Our Gates”, as a response to “The Birth of a Nation”, a racially charged movie by D.W. Griffith which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. “Within Our Gates” challenged the negative stereotypes set by Griffith’s film that blacks were a vile, unproductive, subhuman species, living in America, and that racism can be challenged. Micheaux showed the African American as an upstanding human rather than a subhuman species; the thought held by the white masses.
Over the next thirty years, Micheaux would go on to make over 30 movies that were radically different from the Hollywood portrayal blacks in films. He is regarded as one of the most successful and prolific black film makers, providing a diverse range of non-stereotyped characters that black actors could play. Micheaux set a foundation for future black film makers to create films showing blacks in a positive light, rather than using film to further denigrate the black race. He showed courage and vision, and for that, Mr. Micheaux, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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