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Micheaux, Oscar (1884–1951)

Oscar Micheaux was the quintessential self-made man.  Novelist, film-maker and relentless self-promoter, Micheaux was born on a farm near Murphysboro, Illinois.  He worked briefly as a Pullman porter and then in 1904 homesteaded nearly 500 acres of land near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  Micheaux published novels in Nebraska and New York and made movies in Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California.

Micheaux left “autobiographical” records in his first three novels, The Conquest (1913), The Forged Note (1915) and The Homesteader (1917), in which his protagonists play out a young black man’s life in rural, white South Dakota. Micheaux began his career with door-to-door sales of his early writings to neighboring farmers.  Encouraged by the modest success from his first novel, Micheaux gave up farming to write six other novels about this period and region.

D.W. Griffith’s powerful and vitriolically anti-black movie The Birth of a Nation ironically impressed upon Michaeux the ability of a filmmaker to tell a complex, multi-character story every bit as compelling as a novel.  Oscar Micheaux soon got the opportunity to test his theory in 1918 when he was contacted by the black-owned Lincoln Film Company in Nebraska to adapt his third novel, The Homesteader, to film.  Michaeux rejected the offer and instead 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 when it grossed over $5,000. 

Oscar Micheaux’s desire to control the production and distribution of his films would be the hallmark of his career.  He would persuade the best black actors of his time to work in forty-four mostly low-budget films he produced between 1919 and 1948 that appealed to the rapidly growing black urban audiences of the post-World War I period.  Most of Micheaux’s films were detective stories, quickly written, filmed, edited and released. His African

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