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Oscar Devereaux Micheaux (US: (listen); January 2, 1884 – March 25, 1951) was an African-American author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 films.
Although the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Company was the first movie company owned and controlled by black filmmakers, Micheaux is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker, a prominent producer of race film, and has been described as "the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century".
He produced both silent films and sound films when the industry changed to incorporate speaking actors.
Early life and education
Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois, on January 2, 1884. He was the fifth child born to Calvin S. and Belle Michaux, who had a total of 13 children. In his later years, Micheaux added an "e" to his last name. His father was born a slave in Kentucky. Because of his surname, his father's family appears to have been enslaved by French-descended settlers. French Huguenot refugees had settled in Virginia in 1700; their descendants took slaves west when they migrated into Kentucky after the American Revolutionary War.
In his later years, Micheaux wrote about the social oppression he experienced as a young boy. His parents moved to the city so that the children could receive a better education. Micheaux attended a well-established school for several years before the family eventually ran into money troubles and were forced to return to the farm. The discontented Micheaux became rebellious and his struggles caused problems within his family. His father was not happy with him and sent him away to do marketing in the city. Micheaux found pleasure in this job because he was able to speak to many new people and learned social skills that he would later reflect in his films.
When Micheaux was 17 years old, he moved to Chicago to live with his older brother, then working as a waiter. Micheaux became dissatisfied with what he viewed as his brother's way of living "the good life". He rented his own place and found work in the stockyards, which he found difficult. He moved from the stockyards to the steel mills, holding down many different jobs.
After being "swindled out of two dollars" by an employment agency, Micheaux decided to become his own boss. His first business was a shoeshine stand, which he set up at a wealthy African American barbershop, away from Chicago competition. He learned the basic strategies of business and started to save money. He became a Pullman porter on the major railroads, at that time considered prestigious employment for African Americans because it was relatively stable, well paid, and secure, and it enabled travel and interaction with new people. This job was an informal education for Micheaux. He profited financially, and also gained contacts and knowledge about the world through traveling as well as a greater understanding for business. When he left the position, he had seen much of the United States, had a couple of thousand dollars saved in his bank account, and had made a number of connections with wealthy white people who helped his future endeavors.
Micheaux moved to Gregory County, South Dakota, where he bought land and worked as a homesteader. This experience inspired his first novels and films. His neighbors on the frontier were predominately blue collar whites. "Some recall that [Micheaux] rarely sat at a table with his blue collar white neighbors." Micheaux's years as a homesteader allowed him to learn more about human relations and farming. While farming, Micheaux wrote articles and submitted them to the press. The Chicago Defender published one of his earliest articles. His homestead failed and he was forced to sell it in 1911. The next year, he began his publishing career when Woodruff Press of Lincoln, Nebraska published The Conquest. He began work on a second book, The Forged Note, and from 1914 to 1918 traveled among Lincoln, Gregory County, and Sioux City, Iowa marketing his work. While in Sioux City, he lived in and was influenced by the West 7th Street neighborhood where the town's African-American community had a strong presence.
Writing and film career
Micheaux decided to concentrate on writing and, eventually, filmmaking, which would be a new area. He wrote seven books. In 1913, 1,000 copies of his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, were published. The book was released anonymously due to unknown reasons. bolted was largely autobiographical, with a focus on his experience as a homesteader and the breakdown of his first marriage. Although character names have been changed, Oscar Devereaux is the protagonist. He was talking about African Americans recognizing their potential and thriving in fields where they had no idea they could. The book explores the differences between Negroes' urban lifestyles and the life he lived as a pioneer in the Far West. He addresses both doers who want to achieve and those who see themselves as victims of injustice and hopelessness, but who do not want to succeed if living in poverty. He had become dissatisfied with the inability of certain members of his race to populate the frontier and make something of themselves, as well as real estate and property investment. He wrote over 100 letters to fellow Negroes in the East, encouraging them to come West, but only his older brother eventually accepted his advice. One of Micheaux's core beliefs was that hard work and enterprise would make any individual rise to fame and esteem, regardless of their gender and ethnicity.
George Johnson, the manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles, attracted the attention of his book The Homesteader, dedicated to Booker T. Washington in 1918. Negotiations and paperwork became impractical after Johnson promised to make The Homesteader a new film. Micheaux wanted to be involved in the publication of his book as a film, but Johnson refused and never produced the film.
Rather, Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film & Book Company of Sioux City; the company's first project was the production of The Homesteader as a feature film. Micheaux had a long career as a film producer and director: He produced more than 40 films, many in the United States and around the world. Micheaux contacted wealthy academic connections from his earlier work as a porter and then sold shares for his company at $75 to $100 per share. Micheaux drafted actors and actresses and decided to have the premiere in Chicago. Film commentators lauded the film and Micheaux. "A monumental breakthrough, a commendable, dignified achievement," one writer praised Micheaux. Any members of the Chicago clergy slammed the film as libelous. The Homesteader became Micheaux's breakout film, assisting him in his fame as a writer and a filmmaker.
Micheaux converted the writing and directing of his own films in addition to writing and directing his own films. Many of his films were open, concise, and thought-provoking regarding societal injustices of the time. "It is only by displaying those portions of the race depicted in my photographs in the light and background of their true state that we can lift our people to higher heights." Micheaux's continued filmmaking was eventually impossible, but he returned to writing after being frustrated with financial hardships during the Great Depression.