Oscar Micheaux is the preeminent figure in African-American silent cinema. He was the most prolific filmmaker of the silent era, directing at least twenty-eight silent features or re-edited versions of films between 1919-1929. He remained in the industrry longer than any other African-American filmmaker, producing and directing films until 1948. But Micheaux's significance goes beyond the vast number of films he made. While most African-American directors of the silent era (1912-1930) were afraid to deal with controversial issues, particularly those involving racism or discrimination, Micheaux boldly tackled subjects sensitive to both Euro-Americans and African-Americans-lynching, job discrimination, interracial romance, mob violence, infra-racial prejudice, rape, and religious hypocrisy, among others. Micheaux is a seminal figure in African-American silent cinema because of the dramatically complex ways in which he portrayed African-American men.
Oscar Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois, in 1883, among the first generation of African-Americans born into freedom. Micheaux's parents had migrated to Illinois after the Civil War. His father owned his own farm and his mother was a schoolteacher. They imparted a number of ideas in the young boy's mind that would become valuable messages of his own-the importance of owning your own land, respect for farming as a profession, and the value of education (Sampson 142-43).
In his hometown, Micheaux had frequent conversations with black Pullman potters who persuaded him to live in a big city. The lure of the city, with its criminal element, tempting women, and excitement would prove to be a common theme in his writing and filmmaking. Micheaux left for Chicago in 1900, a generation ahead of other African-Americans who left the South during the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s (Sampson 144).
By 1904 Micheaux had saved enough money working as a porter to become a property owner and farmer like his father. He purchased land near Gregory, South Dakota. Over the next few years, the ever thrifty and industrious Micheaux was able to develop a successful homestead. He was respected and well liked by most of his white neighbors. Convinced that other African-Americans should follow his example, he made several trips to Chicago where he unsuccessfully tried to convince relatives and friends to join him. In 1910 Oscar married Orlean McCracken. The marriage was doomed almost from the beginning. A child's death, Orleans loneliness on the homestead, and economic problems led to a permanent separation. Orleans minister-father eventually brought her back to Chicago.
In 1913 Micheaux wrote and published a novel entitled The Conquest, Having a limited education, Oscar taught himself how to write. According to film archivist Henry T. Sampson, Micheaux begin writing as a form of therapy (146). His homesteading venture eventually became a financial disaster and his marriage was a failure. Though described as fictional, The Conquest was largely autobiographical, covering the first 29 years of the young man's life. The protagonist of the book is Oscar Devereaux (no mistaking who this volume was about). The similarities between the two men's lives are remarkable-both come from large families, both have fathers from Kentucky who become farmers, and both lose brothers in the Spanish American War. The book covers Oscar's years as both a Pullman porter and as a farmer. The Conquest is an important stepping-stone in understanding Micheaux's filmmaking because it contains many of the basic premises central to his films. In the novel Micheaux wanted to give the reader a model for success even though his own farming endeavors led to economic and personal disaster. Micheaux wanted to create a character that other African-American men would emulate-a man who was strong, educated, practical, and courageous.
After the publication of his first book, Micheaux immediately switched careers, believing he could earn a living as a novelist. …