Oscar Micheaux Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.