In 1884, Oscar Micheaux was born on a farm in Murphysboro, Illinois. He worked briefly as a Pullman porter and then in 1904 homesteaded 500 acres of land near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Micheaux, a prolific writer, based his first three novels on his real-life experiences. The Conquest(1913), The Forged Note(1915), and The Homesteader(1917) all had a young black protagonist dealing with rural life in South Dakota.
He began his career by going door to door to sale his early writings. After the modest success of his first book, he quit farming and wrote six more books about his perspective on that period of time. Oddly enough, the anti-black movie The birth of a nation was the main inspiration behind Micheaux beginning his film career.
He enjoyed the way D.W Griffith was able to tell such a complex multi-character story as compelling as a novel. Oscar Micheaux got his first chance at the big screen when the black-owned Lincon Film Company in Nebraska wanted to adapt his third book, The Homesteader, to film.
Micheaux rejected the offer and moved to Chicago where he made his own movie version of his novel. The Homesteader was the first full-length feature film written, produced and directed by an African American. It was also a commercial success at the time, grossing over $5,000.
At that time, the mere fact that he wanted to control the production and distribution of his films was unheard of. He would do a great job persuading some of the best black actors of his time to work in his films.
Between 1919-1948 Oscar Micheaux would create forty-four films, most of which were low budget. His films appealed to the rapidly growing African American audiences of the post world war 1 period who were starving to see images that look like them.
Most of Micheaux’s movies were detective stories that were quickly written, edited and released. He also made it a point to combat some of the negative stereotypes of African Americans. Within our Gates, his fifth film, specifically addressed the anti-black propaganda in The Birth of a Nation.
He would go on to address other important topics in the black community that included: interracial dating, skin color hypocrisy, as well as issues in the church. This was a sharp contrast to the movies in the 1920’s and 1930’s that portrayed African Americans as lazy, ignorant and sexually aggressive.
Many of his white critics complained about the low quality of his movies but his audience couldn’t get enough of his film’s making him the most successful black writer, director, and producer in the United States until his death in 1951. Oscar Micheaux is a shining example of how to operate outside of the system but still have a positive effect on your community.