Oscar Micheaux: The great Film maker of the early 20th Century


You may never have heard of Oscar Micheaux, but out of his “impoverished consciousness-raising exploitation potboilers,” writes critic Dave Kehr, “the American black cinema was born.” Kehr wrote that in a brief review of Micheaux’s Murder in Harlem, a “1935 mystery tale involving corpses and mysterious letters and flashbacks and Byzantine plot twists, all of which should undoubtedly prove taxing to Micheaux’s meager technical abilities. It hardly matters though, since Micheaux was his own cinematic institution.”

That movie came in the late-middle period of Micheaux’s career, which produced more than 44 pictures and qualified him as the most prolific black independent filmmaker in American cinema history as well as, in the words of Atlas Obscura’s Stephanie Weber, “a pioneer in almost every aspect of film.” Having started out as a writer, he chose for his first motion picture to adapt The Homesteader, his own novel “about a black homesteader in the Dakotas who falls in love with the daughter of a Scottish widower. In 1919, Micheaux raised the money on his own to film and produce The Homesteader in Chicago, becoming the first African American to make a feature film.”


“Given the times, his accomplishments in publishing and film are extraordinary,” says NAACP History, “including being the first African-American to produce a film to be shown in ‘white’ movie theaters. In his motion pictures, he moved away from the ‘Negro’ stereotypes being portrayed in film at the time.” In recent years, critics like Kehr and others have directed a bit of attention back toward Micheaux’s path-breaking body of work, and many future leading lights of black American cinema could no doubt benefit from discovering it themselves. But in his confident treatment of sensational material, his creativity-inducing technical and economic limitations, and his learn-on-the-job understanding of the mechanics of cinema, he also foreshadowed the excitement of all the waves of indie film to come.


To learn more about Micheaux, read Patrick McGilligan’s book, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Great Black Filmmaker