Oscar Micheaux Essay - Critical Essays

Micheaux, Oscar


Oscar Micheaux 1884-1951

(Born Oscar Devereaux Michaux) American director, producer, screenwriter, and novelist.

Micheaux was a pioneering African American filmmaker, among the first in the American motion picture industry. With the early success of his novel The Homesteader (1917), which he adapted into a film two years later, Micheaux was able to write, produce, and direct approximately forty-eight films over the next three decades in both silent and sound formats. Spurred by a desire to depict African Americans in non-stereotypical roles, Micheaux created his motion pictures with all-black casts and featured in them the genres of mainstream film: western, detective mystery, romance, and melodrama. His works, however, failed to achieve acceptance outside of the African American community during his lifetime, and today Micheaux is primarily remembered for his bold efforts in a white-dominated industry rather than for the content of his films themselves.

Biographical Information

Micheaux was born on his father's farm near Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. As a youth he spent a great deal of his leisure time reading, notably the works of Booker T. Washington, whose philosophy of diligence and hard work was to make an impression on him. After graduating from high school at the age of seventeen, Micheaux left southern Illinois and headed to Chicago. There he worked a series of menial jobs and became a Pullman train porter, a vocation that occupied him until 1904. At this time Micheaux decided to purchase and farm a piece of land in South Dakota. He would later record this period of his life in his autobiographical novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913). After its publication Micheaux alighted upon the idea of selling his story door-to-door, which he did successfully in the American South. This later period of his life offered the source for his second work, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915). A third novel, somewhat less autobiographical but still based on his South Dakota farm life, The Homesteader caught the attention of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, representatives of which approached Micheaux offering to make the story into a film. Micheaux liked the idea but wanted to direct the picture himself. Their refusal led him to create his own company, the Micheaux Film Corporation. Active until the 1940s, the company allowed Micheaux to write, direct, and produce an assortment of silent and "talkie" films. These works were played in black ghetto movie-houses and earned him considerable success, although he never achieved main-stream critical approval. In the 1940s Micheaux wrote several more novels, produced his final film The Betrayal (1948), and conducted speaking tours of the South in support of his works. It was during one of these promotional visits to Charlotte, North Carolina, that Micheaux died in 1951.

Major Works

Both Micheaux's novels and his motion pictures feature themes relating to race and race relations, such as inter-racial love, prejudice, and censure. His autobiographical novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, details the life of Oscar Devereaux, a young black man who leaves the racially-divided city to pursue a utopian dream as a farmer in South Dakota. Though he falls in love with a white woman, Devereaux marries a member of his race, only to find that marriage thwarted by her father and his dream of being a homesteader melodramatically crushed by the forces of nature. Micheaux revived this story of his real-life experience in South Dakota in his considerably more successful novel (and later film) entitled The Homesteader. Its protagonist, the solitary and aloof Jean Baptiste—unlike Devereaux—finds his dream on the American plains. After The Homesteader Micheaux turned his attention to film for the next two decades, producing a variety of works in many genres—some of them cautionary tales, others uplifting, and a few that depict the racial stereotypes he intended to denounce. God's Stepchildren (1938) looks at group of light-skinned blacks who endeavor to pass as whites in order to succeed in American society. Underworld (1936) is a gangster story; while the 1939 sound version of Birthright dramatizes the racial prejudice inflicted upon a recent African American Harvard graduate by both blacks and whites.

Critical Reception

Although popularly successful in the milieu of black film during his life, Micheaux and his works fell into relative obscurity in the years following his death in 1951. Several decades later he has received considerable recognition for his ground-breaking efforts as an African American filmmaker, including a posthumous lifetime achievement award granted by the Director's Guild of America in the 1980s. Today, however, only about a dozen of his estimated forty-eight films still exist, and these have been frequently cited for their uneven writing and low production values. Additionally, scholars who have studied Micheaux's work conclude that his pieces demonstrate an assimilationist ethic rather than a strident desire to eradicate racial prejudice and intolerance through example.

Nevertheless, Micheaux continues to be valued as a pivotal figure in the early motion picture industry and as a vital inspiration to contemporary African American film-makers.

Principal Works

The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (autobiographical novel) 1913

The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (autobiographical novel) 1915

The Homesteader (novel) 1917

The Homesteader (film) 1919

The Brute (film) 1920

Symbol of the Unconquered (film) 1920

Within Our Gates (film) 1920

Deceit (film) 1921

The Gunsaulus Mystery (film) 1921

The Dungeon (film) 1922

Uncle Jasper's Will (film) 1922

The Virgin of the Seminole (film) 1922

The Ghost of Tolston's Manor (film) 1923

A Son of Satan (film) 1924

Body and Soul (film) 1925

Marcus Garland (film) 1925

The Spider's Web (film) 1926

The Broken Violin (film) 1927

The Millionaire (film) 1927

Easy Street (film) 1928

Thirty Years Later (film) 1928

When Men Betray (film) 1928

Wages of Sin (film) 1929

A Daughter of the Congo (film) 1930

Darktown Revue (film) 1931

The Exile (film) 1931

Black Magic (film) 1932

The Girl from Chicago (film) 1932

Ten Minutes to Live (film) 1932

Veiled Aristocrats (film) 1932

Ten Minutes to Kill (film) 1933.

Harlem after Midnight (film) 1934

Lem Hawkins' Confession (film) 1935

Swing (film) 1936

Temptation (film) 1936

Underworld (film) 1936

Miracle in Harlem (film) 1937

God's Stepchildren (film) 1938

Birthright [sound version] (film) 1939

Lying Lips (film) 1940

The Notorious Elinor Lee (film) 1940

The Wind from Nowhere (novel) 1944

The Case of Mrs. Wingate (novel) 1945

The Story of Dorothy Stanfield, Based on a Great Insurance Swindle, and a Woman (novel) 1946

The Masquerade: An Historical Novel (novel) 1947

The Betrayal (film) 1948


Hugh M. Gloster (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Negro Fiction to World War I," in Negro Voices in American Fiction, The University of North Carolina Press, 1948, pp. 23-100.

[In the following excerpt, Gloster briefly assesses The Conquest, The Homesteader, and The Forged Note.]

Avoiding both pride and bitterness in his treatment of interracial subject matter, Oscar Micheaux writes some-what autobiographically of the experiences of an enterprising Negro in Chicago, the South Dakota farm lands, and the urban South. His first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), based largely on the author's own life and dedicated to Booker T. Washington, relates the experiences of Oscar Devereux in Illinois and South Dakota. In the latter state Devereux, after acquiring a homestead and becoming a prosperous farmer, falls in love with a Scottish girl but evades matrimony because of the racial barrier. Later marrying Orlean McCraline, daughter of a Negro preacher of Chicago, he finally leaves her because of frequent disagreements with her father.

In The Conquest, for the first time in American Negro fiction, a leading colored character appears in the role of a pioneer; and settlement in the Northwest is proposed as an approach to the alleviation of racial tension in the South. Admitting that the black man suffers injustice in the United States, Micheaux nevertheless asserts that this "should be no reason why the American Negro should allow obvious prejudice to prevent his taking advantage of opportunities that surround him." Recommending the Northwest as an area where the Negro might work out a successful future, the author continues:

… for years I have felt constrained to deplore the negligence of the colored race in America, in not seizing the opportunity for monopolizing more of the many million acres of rich farm lands in the great Northwest, where immigrants from the old world own many acres of rich farm lands; while the millions of blacks, only a few hundred miles away, are as oblivious to it all as the heathen of Africa are to civilization.

In didactic chapters entitled "Where the Negro Fails" and "Progressives and Reactionaries" Micheaux advances opinions concerning the shortcomings and leadership of his race. He affirms that "the greatest of all the failings" of his people, both ignorant and educated, is the lack of "that great and mighty principle which characterizes Americans, called the initiative." In amplification of this idea, he says:

Colored people are possible in every way that is akin to becoming good citizens, which has been thoroughly proven and is an existing fact. Yet they seem to lack the "guts" to get into the Northwest and "do things." In seven or eight of the great agricultural states there were not enough colored farmers to fill a township of thirty-six sections.

Another predominating inconsistency is that there is that "love of luxury." They want street cars, cement walks, and electric lights to greet them when they arrive.

In an evaluation of the two conflicting schools of Negro leadership, Micheaux expresses a preference for the racial platform of Booker T. Washington:

The Progressives, led by Booker T. Washington and with industrial education as the material idea, are good, active citizens; while the other class, distinctly reactionary in every way, contend for more equal rights, privileges, and protection, which is all very logical, indeed, but they do not substantiate their demands with any concrete policies; depending largely on loud demands, and are too much given to the condemnation of the entire white race for the depredations of a few.

A further examination of Micheaux's views on the...

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Janis Hebert (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Oscar Micheaux: A Black Pioneer," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter, 1973-74, pp. 62-9.

[In the following essay, Hebert discusses Micheaux's novels as socio-historical artifacts that offer unique glimpses of South Dakotan life during the times in which the works were written.]

During the spring of 1905, a unique homesteader appeared in Gregory County, South Dakota who became the object of much attention and gossip, for as the homesteader himself claimed, he, Oscar Micheaux, "was the only colored man engaged in agriculture … from Megory [Gregory] to Omaha, a distance of three hundred miles." Today, attention is again being directed toward...

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Arlene Elder (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Oscar Micheaux: The Melting Pot on the Plains," in The Old Northwest: A Journal of Regional Life and Letters, Vol. 2, September, 1976, pp. 299-307.

[In the following essay, Elder examines the historical information contained in Micheaux's published works about the westward expansion of the United States.]

When the Department of the Interior opened up land on the eastern part of the Rosebud Reservation in Gregory County, South Dakota, in 1905, the most unusual homesteader to stake his claim was the young Afro-American, Oscar Micheaux, a former Pullman porter from Illinois. Micheaux's ambition and daring seem to have fascinated his German, Swedish, Irish,...

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Henry T. Sampson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Micheaux Film Corporation; Oscar Micheaux," in Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1977, pp. 42-55.

[In the following essay, Sampson presents a historical overview of Micheaux's filmmaking career.]

The appreciation my people have shown my maiden efforts convinces me that they want racial photoplays depicting racial life, and to that task I have concentrated my mind and efforts.

—Oscar Micheaux (1920)

Undoubtedly the most successful of all black-owned independent film production companies which produced films about black people...

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Chester J. Fontenot (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Oscar Micheaux, Black Novelist and Film Maker," in Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains, edited by Virginia Faulkner, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 109-25.

[In the following essay, Fontenot discusses the history and major themes of Micheaux's most important novels and films.]

Oscar Micheaux, who lived from 1884 to 1951, was a black novelist and movie producer who believed that one solution to the problems that plagued black urbanites was for them to abandon the cities and to look to the Great Plains as a place where they could build an alternative society. Similarly, according to Micheaux, black southerners could homestead...

(The entire section is 5455 words.)

Donald Bogle (essay date 1985)

SOURCE:"'B'… for Black," in Film Comment, October, 1985, pp. 31-46.

[Bogle is the author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks (1973), a study of the representation of African Americans in movies. In the following essay, he discusses Micheaux's place in the history of African American filmmaking.]

The heroine of Oscar Micheaux's 1937 film God's Step Children is Naomi, a high-toned, light-skinned black girl who wants to be white. She frets, pouts, plots, whines, and, well, just plain acts up, turning her tiny black community topsy-turvy. Finally, Naomi does everyone a great service; she throws herself into the river and, like a...

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Bell Hooks (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Micheaux: Celebrating Blackness," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 351-60.

[Hooks is a major contemporary feminist and Afrocentric literary critic. In the following essay, she discusses the ways in which Micheaux's films "work to transgress boundaries, offering perspectives, 'takes, ' on black experience that can be found/seen in no other cinematic practice during his day. " Specifically, she examines the depiction of sexuality in the film Ten Minutes to Live.]

Conceiving of his work in independent filmmaking as counter-hegemonic cultural production, Oscar Micheaux worked doggedly to create screen images that would disrupt...

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Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Identity and Betrayal: 'The Symbol of the Unconquered' and Oscar Micheaux's Biographical Legend," in The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi, Rutgers University Press, 1996, pp. 56-80.

[In the following essay, Bowser and Spence discuss the interrelationships between what is known about Micheaux's life, the ways in which he mythologized his life in his creative works, and the significance of his novels and films as documents of the African American social experience.]

The Symbol of the Unconquered, the latest and the best of the Micheaux productions, will open a six day showing at...

(The entire section is 8449 words.)

Richard Grupenhoff (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Rediscovery of Oscar Micheaux, Black Film Pioneer," in Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 40-8.

[In the following essay, Grupenhoff provides a historical overview of Micheaux's life and career.]

The stars on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard are dedicated to those who have achieved a measure of fame in the entertainment industry. But one of the most recent stars honors a film director few people have ever heard of, and even fewer have seen any of his films. Unveiled in February 1987, that new star belongs to Oscar Micheaux, a rather obscure and engimatic individual who was, nevertheless, the most prolific and consistent...

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Further Reading


Creighton, Alan. Review of The Case of Mrs. Wingate, by Oscar Micheaux. Canadian Forum 25 (June 1945): 75.

Recounts the plot of Micheaux's 1945 novel The Case of Mrs. Wingate and comments on its theme: "the position of the Negro in America."

Cripps, Thomas. "Black Underground" and "Meanwhile Far Away from the Movie Colony." In Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, pp. 170-202, 309-48. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Summarizes Micheaux's life and studies his films. Cripps characterizes Micheaux as "the exemplar both of persistence and of failure in the face of unyielding...

(The entire section is 368 words.)