The First Black Frontier Filmmaker
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Oscar Micheaux is not a household name like Martin Scorcese or Frank Capra or John Ford. But it should be. This year marks the 100th anniversary that America’s first black film studio was founded by Micheaux. When the Directors Guild of America award Micheaux’s family their lifetime achievement award in 1986, the black actor, Louis Gossett, Jr., who presented the award said, “He’s an example of someone who had the philosophy, ‘nothing is impossible.' "
Like so many early black pioneers in the late 1800s, Micheaux was the son of former slaves. He was born in southern Illinois in 1884, the fifth of 11 children. He dropped out of high school and landed a well-paying job (for a black man at the time) as a Pullman train porter. But his restless muse goaded him toward adventure. Like so many dreamers and adventurers, he went West to become one of the first black homesteaders in South Dakota! His experience as a homesteader and farmer inspired him to write novels about the frontier and early settlement.
His first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, in 1913, was largely autobiographical. He dedicated the book to one of his heroes, Booker T. Washington. One of his next books, The Homesteader, was published in 1917 to great popularity and attracted the attention of the first all-black movie production company, Lincoln Motion Picture Company. But Micheaux decided in 1919 to make the picture himself.
The self-taught novice, 35-year-old filmmaker wrote, directed and produce the silent film to rave reviews and his film-making career in black “race-themed” movies exploded.
Micheaux’s experience as a homesteader and pioneer affected him profoundly and themes of hard work, perseverance, and rugged individuality drove his plots. He wrote hundreds of letters to his friends and relatives in the South and East to persuade them to come West and believed that hard work, diligence and enterprise could enable any person to rise to success no matter his or her race.
He would go on to direct and produce 44 films that appealed to the African-American emerging middle class, as well as poor blacks, and dealt with difficult issues such as blacks on the frontier, the movement of African-Americans to the north and Midwest, job discrimination, racial violence and lynching, rape, mixing of the races, and the Ku Klux Klan. His films often caused problems with censors but Micheaux was doggedly dedicated to addressing those difficult issues in his films.
Micheaux made films during an era of great change for blacks, their Great Migration to the north, west and Midwest; their growing working class and middle class; greater education opportunities and a growing professional class; and burgeoning musical and entertainment traditions. Micheaux depicted contemporary black lives and issues and presented black characters with dignity, intelligence, and integrity and countered white portrayals of African-Americans that emphasized inferior, unsophisticated and uneducated stereotypes.
Micheaux’s last film was called “The Betrayal”, made in 1948 in which he returned once again to the themes of his youth and borrowed the plot from his original movie, The Homesteader. The plot focuses on a successful African-American farmer in South Dakota who falls in love with a woman named Deborah whom he believes is white.
Because of their racial differences he feels she would not be interested in him. He goes to Chicago and marries a black cabaret singer. But she later leaves him with their child, then tries to kill him when he pursues her. Their marriage disintegrates and she agrees to give up her child and marriage. In the meantime, Deborah discovers that she is part black. Martin returns to South Dakota and they marry.
Micheaux died a couple of years later in 1951 and was buried in Great Bend, Kansas, a place that held fond memories of his youth. In 1987, Micheaux got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1989, he was inducted into the Black Fimmakers Hall of Fame. In 2001 Great Bend held a Golden Anniversary Oscar Micheaux Festival in his honor. And Gregory, South Dakota, holds an annual Oscar Micheaux Film Festival.
In 2014, black filmmaker Bayer Mack produced a movie about Micheaux called “The Czar of Black Hollywood,“ using Library of Congress archived footage and vintage music from his movies. Mack had been inspired to make the movie after reading Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only by Patrick McGilligan and was shocked that so little writing and film existed about the pioneering filmmaker. He said Micheaux embodied "the best of what we all are as Americans.”
PHOTOS: (1) This year is the 100th anniversary of Oscar Micheaux’s first films as America’s first black film-maker. (2) Oscar Micheaux was one of the first black homesteaders in South Dakota and wrote his first novel—largely autobiographical—about homesteading in the frontier, called “The Conquest.” (3) Micheaux’s third novel, “The Homesteader,” was very successful and attracted the nation’s first all-black, but short-lived, film producer, the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. But Micheaux decided to write, direct and produce the film himself. It was a great success and launched his career as a filmmaker. (4) Oscar MIcheaux behind the camera directing.(5) MIcheaux’s second film, Within Our Gates, produced in 1920, portrayed contemporary racial issues of the time, Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan, the black migration to the North and Midwest, and the “New Negro” of the 1900s. (6) Micheaux adapted famous black novelist, Charles Chestnutt’s 1899, “The Conjure Woman,” which featured black dialect and the antebellum South and well as the postwar years and subverted the common literary stereotype of black’s as subservient to their old masters. (7) The Virgin of Seminole featured a beautiful young black actress named Shingzie Howard, who starred in several of Micheaux’s films. The Virgin of Seminole focused on a young black man who joins the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and becomes a hero by rescuing a captive mixed-race woman (Howard) from a hostile American Indian tribe. The young man later purchases a ranch that becomes the foundation for great financial wealth. (8) Micheaux’s “The Wilderness,” better known as Symbol of the Unconquerored, was produced in 1920, about a white-skinned African-American woman who goes west from Alabama to the Northwest and settles there as a white woman. But she falls in love with a black man and must reveal her past. (9) Micheaux’s ground-breaking success lead to other films being produced for a black audience. Westerns the Westerns Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Harlem Rides the Range (1939), and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) were directed by white XXX but written by black pioneering writer and actor Flourney Eakin Miller. He wrote The Colored Aristocrats, a silent film in 1909. Micheaux’s would write the The Veiled Aristocrats much later, in 1932. (10) The 1924 silent film, “Birthright,” featured both a black and white cast and was based on the white Southern, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Thomas Stribling, first serious novel about a mixed-race man who returned home to the South after completing his education at Harvard but gains no respect in the Jim Crow South and moves north. The 1924 silent movie footage was largely lost but MIcheaux reproduced the film again in 1939. (11) The 1931 film The Exile, was Micheaux’s first talkie and the nation’s FIRST African-American talkie. (12) The 1932 “Girl from Chicago,” featured an all-black cast and deals with the growing popularity of gangster films. The concerns a black Federal agent who falls in love while on assignment in Mississippi. He helps his lover escape a local gangster, and the film follows them to Harlem where they become involved in the assassination of a Cuban racketeer, played by Juano Hernández. As with many Micheaux films, several musical numbers were interspersed throughout the action, providing a glimpse of the popular African-American music and dancing of the time.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted October 17, 2019
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