was an African American novelist and filmmaker. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from Southern Illinois to the West, South America, and Europe. His work and art also brought him to live in Sioux City in the West 7th Street neighborhood. Today he is recognized as a pioneering filmmaker, but also as a man ahead of his time.
Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois on 2 January 1884 to a family of farmers. At a young age he helped his family as a farm hand. While he was still a teenager he left his family to work in car manufacturing plant in Carbondale, Illinois. After many jobs that did not satisfy his desire to create art, Micheaux decided to homestead in South Dakota. Part of his decision to move west was his belief that the only independent future for the Black man laid on the Western Frontier.
By 1905 Micheaux had purchased a 160-acre tract of land near Gregory, South Dakota where he built a house and farm. It was during the move from Illinois to South Dakota that Micheaux began to think about writing. Farming conditions were poor for him and his neighbors as drought struck much of the Midwest. He was forced by these poor conditions to sell his homestead in 1911. Fortunately, Micheaux had already begun work on his first novel.
The theme of the westward movement of the nation fascinated him and that idea became the subject of his 1912 novel, The Conquest. His search for publishers led him through Sioux City and Lincoln, Nebraska. After more than a year of looking, Woodruff Press in Lincoln agreed to publish the book.
In autumn of 1913 he began his second book, The Forged Note, which was published in 1915 by the Western Book Supply Company in Sioux City. From 1914 to 1918 Micheaux spent much of his time traveling between Sioux City, Gregory, and Lincoln trying to sell his books.
During those years much of his time was spent in Sioux City. He lived in several different apartments in the West 7th Street neighborhood. The area had long been the center of Sioux City’s African-American Community. While living in Sioux City, Micheaux wrote his third novel – The Homesteader. Micheaux was undoubtedly influenced by the diverse cultures that lived in Sioux City, especially by fellow African-Americans. He also decided to begin putting his novels up on the big screen.
The Homesteader was published in 1917 in Sioux City. Shortly after publication the Lincoln Motion Picture Company attempted to buy the rights to the novel. Micheaux, however, had other plans and decided to film the book himself. From 1917 to 1919 he shot the story near Winner, South Dakota. The Homesteader was the first feature length film by and African American. During the making of the movie, the young filmmaker also formed the Micheaux Book and Film Company based in Chicago and New York City.
Aside from his early work that dealt with westward migration, the majority of his novels and films focus on race relations. His second film, Within our Gates, was a reaction to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. More than just a reaction, the film was a depiction of racism in the 1910s. After the film was released, Micheaux traveled to Europe and South America, where the film did well, to gain worldwide rights.
In 1920 Micheaux’s success led him to Harlem in New York City where he made many more films. Many prominent African-American stars acted in these later films including Paul Robeson and Robert Earl Jones. His film company went bankrupt in 1928, but with the help of two white theatre owners he went on to make almost 20 more movies.
By the end of his filmmaking career, Micheaux had written and directed 43 movies, 27 silent films, and 16 sound features. Not all were successes; some were so controversial that they were banned from theaters. A complete list of Micheaux’s films would cover varieties from comedies and Westerns to musicals and gangster sagas.
Micheaux’s films were important to many people, though his name has not always been well recognized. He helped dismiss stereotypes of Black people as childlike or the White man’s burden. Micheaux, in his films, emphasized the everyday lives of African-Americans and the racial prejudices they faced.
Not only did Micheaux’s work empower African-Americans and help break stereotypes, but it also influenced other filmmakers. Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Melvin VanPeebles often credit Micheaux as one of their greatest influences and as a true film pioneer.
In the recent past, several documentaries have been made to celebrate Micheaux’s daring and creative works. The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame named their award for achievement in Micheaux’s honor. Micheaux, his career, and his films are celebrated every year at the Oscar Micheaux Festival in Gregory South Dakota.
Oscar Micheaux, an African American who wrote novels, made films, and fought racism and stereotypes was indeed a man ahead of his time.
Chester J. Fontenot. “Oscar Micheaux,Black Novelist and Film Maker” Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 109-25.
Floyd Webb and Julie Dash. Oscar Micheaux. http://geechee.com/Micheaux.htm
Oscar Micheaux biography file, Sioux City Public Museum Pearl Street Research Center.
Oscar Micheaux www.imdb.com/name/nm0584778