Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux

The fifth child in a family of eleven, Micheaux worked as a shoeshine boy, farm laborer and Pullman porter until 1904, when he purchased a homestead in South Dakota. Within nine years, he had expanded his holdings to 500 acres and also written, published and distributed the first of ten semi-autobiographical novels, "The Conquest" (1913). In 1918, the Lincoln Film Company in Nebraska--one of the first all-black companies that arose in response to D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)--offered to film Micheaux's 1917 novel, "The Homesteader." But when Lincoln refused to produce the film on the scale that he desired, Micheaux responded by founding his own production company and shooting the work himself in the abandoned Selig studio in Chicago. The film opened in Chicago in 1919. Micheaux worked successfully and prolifically throughout the next decade, largely thanks to the promotional techniques he had developed in selling his own novels. With script in hand he would tour ghetto theaters across the nation, soliciting advances from owners and thus circumventing the cash-flow and distribution problems that limited other all-black companies to producing only one or two pictures. When the advent of sound (with its attendant high costs), Hollywood's move into the production of all-black musicals and the Depression combined to bring about the demise of independent black cinema in the early 1930s, Micheaux alone survived. (He did declare bankruptcy in 1928, forcing him thereafter to depend increasingly on white backers.) He released his first "talkie," "The Exile," in 1931. The increasing controversy surrounding Micheaux's films, especially "God's Step Children" (1938), and his unsuccessful attempts to imitate Hollywood genre movies brought his career to a halt in 1940. He staged a disastrous comeback in 1948 with "The Betrayal" and died three years later while on a promotional tour of the South. Micheaux offered audiences a black version of Hollywood fare, complete with actors typecast as the "black Valentino" or the "sepia Mae West." But because he operated under financial and technical restraints, his films were poorly lighted and edited. Non-professional actors were used, and scenes were often shot in one take, leading to inevitable "flubs." Micheaux incorporated these limitations into a unique style that added a self-conscious element to his films: errors were included "to give the audience a laugh," continuity defied expectation, and narrative was often abandoned in favor of sheer excess. Above all, Micheaux saw his films as "propaganda" designed to "uplift the race." In the 1930s, however, black critics and audiences rejected his message as racially ambivalent. His bourgeois ideology of the "self-made man" found expression in all-black casts in which the light-skinned blacks succeeded, while the rest were blamed for their own oppression. Nevertheless, his films represented a radical departure from Hollywood's portrayal of blacks as servants and brought diverse images of ghetto life and related social issues to the screen for the first time.