The year 1986 was a critical one for Black voices in cinema, and not simply because director Spike Lee made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It. It was also the year the Directors Guild of America bestowed a Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award on late filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, an important but often-overlooked pioneer in the earliest days of the movies.
In fact, Micheaux stands as one of the most successful independent filmmakers of any era; over the course of his career, he produced more than 40 feature films—many of them centered around themes of social activism, civil rights, and interracial relationships at a time they were barely being represented in film—and he did it all without the backing of a major studio. An Oscar Micheaux Production was just that: A creation conceived and realized by one of history’s earliest Black filmmakers. But having such ambitions carried no shortage of obstacles.
A Leading Role
Micheaux had a deep understanding of the racial divide that blanketed the 19th century. Born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1884, Micheaux’s parents, Calvin and Bell, had both been born enslaved—so the freedom Oscar later had to travel and explore the world was not something he took lightly. After working for a few years as a train porter, he moved to South Dakota and began a career as a homesteader, farming on land granted by the government for a small filing fee to encourage Western expansion. Soon, Micheaux expanded his land holdings from 160 acres to well over 1000 acres.
He also got married to Orlean McCracken in 1910, but the relationship was fraught. With his marriage on thin ice and his farming facing a drought, Micheaux moved to Sioux City in 1913 and transformed himself into a novelist, penning the semi-autobiographical The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer in 1913, The Forged Note in 1915, and the fictionalized memoir The Homesteader in 1917, among others.
The Homesteader was Micheaux’s standout work of the era. In it, his protagonist, Jean Baptiste, causes a stir in the world of white settlers in South Dakota by falling for a white woman named Agnes Stewart. Micheaux flirts with this controversy in the text before having the hero discover he was wrong about her race—Agnes is biracial. This concession likely saved Micheaux from any serious condemnation by critics while still allowing him to explore a taboo topic.
Micheaux sold his books door-to-door, garnering enough success to form his own publishing company, Western Book Supply. It was the solution to prejudicial publishing attitudes of the era, which had little interest in authentic accounts of the Black experience.
“I want to see the Negro pictured in books just like he lives,” Micheaux once said. “But, if you write that way, the white book publishers won't publish your scripts, so I formed my own book publishing firm and write my own books, and Negroes like them, too, because three of them are bestsellers.”
The same barriers Micheaux found in publishing were also present in the nascent film industry. When producers at the Lincoln Motion Picture Company attempted to purchase the rights to make The Homesteader, Micheaux grew frustrated at the protracted negotiations as well as the limited role he would have in how the movie was produced. Rather than relinquish control, Micheaux instead formed his own production company, Micheaux Film and Book Co., on the premise that he had taught himself to farm and could therefore teach himself to make films. And just like that, Micheaux was in the movie business.
The silent film version of The Homesteader was released in 1919 in Chicago, with Micheaux producing and directing. Reviews were positive, but it’s hard to know exactly how close Micheaux hewed to his own source material. The 100-year-old film hasn’t survived—a recurring problem in a time when film preservation wasn't on anyone's mind.
A Life in Film
With the success of The Homesteader, Micheaux was able to pursue his film career in earnest and tackle increasingly controversial subject matter. In 1920’s Within Our Gates, a racist man is about to commit sexual assault when he realizes his victim is his own daughter. The film’s frank depiction of racism, including a lynching, was meant as a counterbalance to the sanitized version seen in director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Following the Chicago race riot of 1919, local ministers believed the anti-lynching sentiment would stir up further aggression and asked him not to show it. Micheaux ignored them, and audiences lined up.
In 1925’s Body and Soul, a priest (played by Paul Robeson, who would star in many of Micheaux's films) struggles with his corrupted faith, which put censors on edge. They declared the movie “sacrilegious, immoral, and [that it] would tend to incite violence.” Micheaux was forced to edit it.
In 1935’s Murder in Harlem, Micheaux himself appears as a detective involved in a murder that prejudiced white police have blamed on a Black man. The attorney who helps clear the man’s name got through law school by selling books door-to-door, a nod to Micheaux's own past.
Most of Micheaux's films were out of the norm for Hollywood at the time, which largely ignored Black audiences. Theaters were usually segregated, with Black audience members relegated to the balcony. A Micheaux film would pack all-Black movie houses, with Micheaux himself often approaching theater owners directly to book his movies.
Although the films were modestly budgeted at around $10,000 to $20,000 apiece and often successful, Micheaux was in a constant state of uncertainty over finances. This impacted the quality of his films: Micheaux sometimes opted to use the first good take or even shoot at his second wife Alice’s family home in Montclair, New Jersey. Funds were raised by selling stocks or promising investors they could put their children in his films. Owing to his limited budgets, many of his actors were amateurs rather than professionals.
As silent movies gave way to “talkies,” Micheaux continued working, but the rough edges of his low-budget films became more pronounced as studios sunk the bulk of their funding into lavish productions and offered token roles to Black performers.
The financial struggle eventually ended Micheaux’s film career, but not before he made one final splash with The Betrayal, a 1948 film where, once more, a Black rancher (Leroy Collins) falls for a multiracial woman (Myra Stanton).
The Betrayal was budgeted at $100,000, a rich sum for the time. With a running time of 3.5 hours, it was a tough sell to exhibitors, so Micheaux suggested they split it up into three movies. Although it was tepidly received, it became the first film with an all-Black cast to premiere in a Broadway-area theater in New York City.
The Betrayal would also be Micheaux's last film. He spent his remaining years writing books until his death from undisclosed causes at age 67 on March 25, 1951.
A Legacy Delayed
In part because only a fraction of his film's survived—less than 12 altogether—recognition was slow in coming for Micheaux. More than 30 years passed between his death in 1951 and the 1986 Director’s Guild Award.
There are signs that might be changing. In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor, and in 2019, the Library of Congress selected 1925’s Body and Soul for preservation owing to its cultural significance. They did the same in 1993 for Within Our Gates, which was discovered after having been tucked away in a Spanish vault since 1979. Filmmaker Tyler Perry is planning on making an HBO Max series about Micheaux’s life. There are continued calls for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pay tribute to Micheaux, who was not only a pioneer of Black cinema, but cinema as a whole.
"Had it not been for an Oscar Micheaux, there certainly couldn’t be a Tyler Perry," Perry told Variety in 2020.
While history may have needed to catch up to Micheaux’s achievements, his contemporaries did not. On Micheaux’s tombstone reads a simple inscription: "A Man Ahead of His Time."