Black History Minute!!! Oscar Micheaux (1884 - 1951)
American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films. Although the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced some films, he is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century and the most prominent producer of race films. He produced both silent films and "talkies" after the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors.
Micheaux decided to concentrate on writing and, eventually filmmaking, a new industry. He wrote seven novels. In 1913, 1000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader were printed. He published the book anonymously, for unknown reasons. Based on his experiences as a homesteader and the failure of his first marriage, it was largely autobiographical. Although character names have been changed, the protagonist is named Oscar Devereaux. His theme was about African Americans' realizing their potential and succeeding in areas from which they were previously excluded.
In 1918, his novel The Homesteader, dedicated to Booker T. Washington, attracted the attention of George Johnson, the manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles. After Johnson offered to make The Homesteader into a new feature film, negotiations and paperwork became contentious between him and Micheaux. Micheaux wanted to be directly involved in the adaptation of his book as a movie, but Johnson resisted and never produced the film.
Instead, Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City and Chicago; its first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film. Micheaux had a major career as a film producer and director: he produced over 40 films, which drew audiences throughout the US as well as internationally. Micheaux contacted wealthy white connections from his earlier career as a porter, and sold stock for his company at $75 to $100 a share. Micheaux hired actors and actresses and decided to premiere as Chicago was celebrating the return of troops from World War I. The film and Micheaux received high praise from film critics. One article credited Micheaux with “a historic breakthrough, a creditable, dignified achievement”. Some members of the Chicago clergy criticized the film as libelous. The Homesteader became widely known as Micheaux’s breakout film; it helped him become widely known as a writer and a filmmaker.
In addition to writing and directing his own films, Micheaux also adapted the works of different writers for his silent pictures. Many of Micheaux’s films were open, blunt and thought-provoking regarding certain racial issues of that time. Micheaux once commented, “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”. Financial hardships during the Great Depression eventually made it impossible for Micheaux to keep producing films, and he returned to writing.
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