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Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux

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Also Known As: Died: April 1, 1951
Born: January 2, 1884 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Metropolis, Illinois, USA Profession: director, screenwriter, producer, novelist, farmer, laborer, railroad porter, coal miner, salesman, shoeshiner

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

The most prolific black--if not independent--filmmaker in American cinema, Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced and directed nearly forty feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. Despite his importance to black cinema, Micheaux remains an enigmatic and ignored figure; few of his films have survived. In addition, his controversial racial beliefs and technically inferior films make him difficult to interpolate within mainstream film history. 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...

The most prolific black--if not independent--filmmaker in American cinema, Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced and directed nearly forty feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. Despite his importance to black cinema, Micheaux remains an enigmatic and ignored figure; few of his films have survived. In addition, his controversial racial beliefs and technically inferior films make him difficult to interpolate within mainstream film history.

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.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  The Betrayal (1948) Director
2.
3.
  Lying Lips (1939) Director
4.
  God's Step Children (1938) Director
5.
  Birthright (1938) Director
6.
  Swing! (1938) Director
7.
  Underworld (1937) Director
8.
  Lem Hawkins' Confession (1935) Director
9.
  Harlem After Midnight (1934) Director
10.
  The Girl from Chicago (1932) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Lem Hawkins' Confession (1935) Second detective
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Milestones close milestones

:
Lived in Chicago in the early 1900s
:
Became sole black man to obtain a land claim in Gregory, South Dakota; obtained 500 acres of land and worked as a hoemsteader
1908:
Wrote first novel "The Conquest"
1916:
Approached by Noble and George Johnson who wanted to purchase screen rights to one of his novels, "The Homesteader"
1919:
Feature directorial debut with film version of "The Homesteader"; first full-length feature produced by an American black
1925:
Directed Paul Robeson in "Body and Soul"
1931:
First talking film, "The Exile"
1948:
Made last film, "The Betrayal"
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Notes

Only 10 of the 43 films (27 silents and 16 talkies) Micheaux made are commercially available; the majority have been classified as "lost". Prints of two silents, "Within Our Gates" (1919) and "The Symbol of the Unconquered" (1920), were discovered and restored in the late 1990s.

"I think of Micheaux as the Black Pioneer of American film- not because he was a black man, or because in his youth he pioneered the American West, or because he was the greatest figure in "race" movies and an unjustly ignored force in early American cinema. Micheaux is America's Black Pioneer in the way that Andre' Breton was Surrealism's Black Pope. His movies throw our history and movies into an alien and startling disarray"- J. Hoberman in "Bad Movies"- 6-10-02 Time.com

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Orlean E McCracken.
wife:
Alice B Russell. Actor. Appeared in several films directed by Micheaux; survived him.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Calvin Swan Micheaux. Died in 1932.
mother:
Belle Micheaux. Died in 1918.
brother:
Swan Micheaux Jr. Worked as secretary-treasurer of the Micheaux Film Corporation; died in 1975.
brother:
William Owen Micheaux.
sister:
Ethel Micheaux Wilson.
sister:
Beatric Micheaux. Shot and killed by a jealous lover in 1915.
sister-in-law:
Julia Theresa Russell. Actor. Appeared in "Body and Soul".
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer"
"The Homesteader: A Novel"
"The Wind From Nowhere"
"The Case of Mrs. Wingate"
"The Story of Dorothy Standfield"
"Masquerade: A Historical History"
"Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of Black Inferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux" Greenwood Press
"Oscar Micheaux: A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker" Mariah Press
"Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences" Rutgers University Press
"Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux" Indiana University Press
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