a man ahead of his time
Oscar Micheaux started his success by writing articles and short stories about his life experiences. Those articles later led to a novel and then from there he started his own feature film business.
Oscar Micheaux wrote seven books. Oscar wrote these books while he was on this family farm in Gregory County, South Dakota. He also received inspiration while on his aunt’s & uncle’s farm in Great Bend, Kansas.
Oscar Micheaux filmed and produced 35 (known to this day) films. His films started as silent films but then as technology advanced he began to make “talkies” (films that included voices of the actors and actresses).
Check out this award-nominating documentary about Oscar Micheaux.
The Life of Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Micheaux was born on January 2, 1884, on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois. He was the fifth child born to Calvin S. & Belle Michaux, who had a total of 13 children. In his later years, Oscar added an “e” to his last name. His father was born into slavery in the state of Kentucky. Because of his surname, his father’s family appears to have been owned by French-descended settlers. A French religious group of protestants called Huguenots was refugees and settled in the state of Virginia around 1700. Their descendants took slaves west when they migrated into Kentucky after the American Revolutionary War.
Oscar wrote about the social oppression he experienced as a young boy. His parents eventually moved to the city so that their children could receive a better education. Oscar attended a well-established school for several years before the family eventually ran into money troubles and were forced to return to the farm. Oscar was upset about the move back to the farm and became rebellious and his struggles caused problems within his family. Upset about his son’s rebellious behavior, his father decided to send Oscar to the city to do marketing. Oscar found a lot of pleasure in his new job in the city because he was able to meet and speak with many new people and learned many new social skills, that he would later use in many of his films.
When Oscar was 17 years old he decided he wanted to move to Chicago, Illinois to live with his older brother. He loved meeting and talking to people so he thought that he would gain more knowledge by moving to a bigger city and in the process, he found a job as a waiter. After a while, Oscar was not happy about his living situation with his older brother. Oscar felt that his brother had given up trying to become better and get ahead in life. Oscar was tired of hearing his brother talk about “the good life” because Oscar wanted so much more. So Oscar decided it was time to strike out on his own and he moved out of his brother’s apartment and rented his apartment and also changed jobs to work at the stockyards. However, Oscar found that the job at the stockyards was not easy and didn’t give him the interaction with people that he was hoping for.
So Oscar decided to try a variety of other jobs to see where he would fit in best. After not being happy with a variety of jobs, Oscar decided to go to an employment agency to find a more meaningful job. However, the employment agency “swindled him out of two dollars” and made Oscar so mad that he decided he wasn’t going to work for anyone else but instead was going to be his boss. His very first business was a shoeshine stand at a wealthy African-American barbershop, just outside of Chicago. He felt that setting up a business outside of the main part of the city would help reduce the number of competitors. Now that he was his own boss, he learned a lot about business, strategies, marketing, which allowed him to grow his clientele and begin to save money.
Oscar was starting to get discouraged by the ups and downs that came with running a business. So he decided to a change needed to happen where the money was a little more stable and paid more. So Oscar decided to get a job as a Pullman Porter on the Pullman railroad company. Pullman Porter’s were considered a prestigious job for African Americans because it was relatively stable, well paid, a secure job, and it allowed Oscar to interact with more people while also being able to travel to new places. This new job opened Oscar’s eyes to many new things and he learned quite a bit about people, business, and difference of how other people do business in other areas of the United States. Not only did Oscar profited financially from this new job, but he also gained knowledge about the world and gained contacts of the passengers he served. With this new job, Oscar was able to travel throughout the United States and learned many new skill sets and business practices along the way. Eventually, Oscar felt that he had learned all that he could from this job and with a list of wealthy white connections and a couple of thousand dollars saved up, Oscar quit his job.
Oscar then moved to Gregory County, South Dakota where he purchased a plot of land and begin to work as a homesteader. During this time he began to write out his thoughts and experiences about his life. He found that the farm allowed him to return to the ways of his youth about dreaming of the future but this time he was armed with a life full of new experiences. Oscar began to write out short stories and then would share them with his neighbors and friends. Oscar’s neighbors where predominately white blue-collar farmers and workers. Some of his neighbor’s recalled that he would rarely sit down at the same table [with his white neighbors and friends].
His first publications were given to his neighbors and friends. After some revisions and rewrites, he decided to go further than his neighbors and started to submit his articles to the general press. His first publication came from The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for primarily African American readers.
During this time Oscar meet, dated, and married Orlean McCracken. However, her family seemed to be too complex and burdensome for Oscar. Orlean was unhappy with their lifestyle and felt that Oscar didn’t pay enough attention to her. While Oscar was away on business, Orlean gave birth to a child. We are still unsure if the child belonged to Oscar but the consensus is that it was not Oscar’s biological child. After giving birth and with Oscar still traveling for business, Orlean emptied out their bank account and left. Orlean’s father then sold Micheaux’s property and took the money from the sale of the property. When Oscar eventually got back from his business travels, he tried to get Orlean and his property back however it was too late.
After Oscar’s personal defeat, he decided to dive headfirst back into his work. He concentrated on his writing which yielded seven novels. In 1913 over 1,000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader were printed and distributed. It is unknown why Oscar decided to anonymously publish his first novel. The book was mostly autobiographical and based on his experiences of homesteading and the failure of his first marriage. The leading character in the story was Oscar Devereaux which refers to Oscar Micheaux and he changed the names of the other characters that referred to his neighbors, wife, etc. The main theme of the book was to make African Americans realize their full potential and succeed in areas they didn’t know that they could. The book outlines the difference between the city lifestyles of African Americans and the life he decided to lead as lone Negro man out on the far West as a pioneer. The book talks about two types of people, the first are those who are headstrong people who have great aspirations for life and take the steps necessary to achieve their goals. The second type is those who feel they are constant victims of injustice and hopelessness and they do not try to better themselves in any way. They are content pretending that they are successful while continuing to live the city lifestyle in poverty.
The book was just a written form of how Oscar felt in real life. Oscar was so passionate about having other African Americans realize their full potential and to branch out into the western frontier of the United States that he wrote letters to over 100 fellow Negroes in the East enticing them to come Westward. The only person who took his advice was Oscar’s older brother. One of Oscar’s fundamental beliefs is that hard work and enterprise would make any person rise to respect and prominence no matter his or her race.
In 1918, his novel The Homesteader, which was dedicated to Booker T. Washington, attracted the attention of George Johnson, the manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. George Johnson offered to make The Homesteader into a feature film however the negations between George and Oscar did not go very well. Oscar wanted to be directly involved in the adaptation of his book into a movie but George resisted and ended up never producing the film.
After the fall out with Mr. Johnson and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Oscar decided to take matters into his own hands and so he created the Micheaux Film & Book Company in Chicago, Illinois. The first film for the new company was to produce The Homesteader as a feature film. Whether he knew it or not he was now known as a legendary film producer and director. He produced over 40 films that drew audiences throughout the United States as well as internationally. To help get his new company up and running, he contacted some of his wealthy contacts he made during his time as a Pullman Porter and then from the advice of some of those contacts he started to sell stocks of his company for $75 to $100 a share. Oscar hired actors and actresses while providing them with opportunities to break into the movie business he was finding unknown talented people to help make his business and career a success.
To bring more attention and notoriety to the film and his business, Oscar decided to have a premiere for the film in Chicago. Oscar and the film received high praise from film critics. One article credited Oscar with an “a historic breakthrough, a creditable, dignified achievement”. However, not everyone was happy about the film and some Chicago clergy criticized the film. None the less, The Homesteader became Oscar’s breakout film and it helped him become widely known as a writer and filmmaker.
In addition to writing and directing his own films, Oscar also adapted the works of different writers for his silent pictures. Many of the films produced by the Micheaux Film & Book Company were open, blunt, and thought-provoking regarding certain racial issues of that time. Oscar once said, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.” However, as the Great Depression hit the United States, Oscar found it impossible to continue to produce any films so instead, he returned back to his roots of writing.
Oscar’s films were made during a time of great change in the African American community. His films featured contemporary black like. He dealt with racial relationships between blacks and whites, and the challenges for blacks when trying to achieve success in the larger society. His films were used to oppose and discuss the racial injustice that African Americans received. Topics such as lynching, job discrimination, rape, mob violence, and economic exploitation were shown in his films. These films also refected his ideologies and autobiographical experiences of his life. Oscar sought to create films that would counter white portrayals of African Americans, which tended to emphasize inferior stereotypes. Oscar created complex characters of different classes. His films questioned the value system of both African American and white communities as well as caused problems with the press and state censors.
The critic Lupack described Oscar as pursuing moderation with his films and creating a “middle-class cinema”. His works were designed to appeal to both the middle-class and lower-class audiences. Oscar Micheaux once said, “My results … might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominant characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not.”
Oscar Micheaux died on March 25, 1951, in Charlotte, North Carolina of heart failure. He is buried in Great Bend, Kansas at the Great Bend Cemetary. His headstone reads: “A Man Ahead Of His Time”.
Feel free to check out some of these other videos about Oscar Micheaux.