Explore the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and New York Public Library's holdings on Oscar Micheaux, pioneering author and first African American filmmaker.
Micheaux’s life endeavors and experiences inspired his early works. His first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader (1913), an autobiographical novel, was reworked into his most famous novel The Homesteader (1917). Through his Book Supply Company in Harlem, Micheaux self-published many of his novels such as The Wind from Nowhere (1941); The Case of Mrs. Wingate (1944); The Story of Dorothy Stanfield (1946), and The Masquerade (1947).
Micheaux was an African American author of the early 20th century, but more notably the first African American filmmaker. Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois on January 2, 1884. He was one of thirteen children and the son of Calvin S. and Belle Michaux (he later added the “e” to his name). Micheaux lived in Chicago, Illinois; Harlem New York; and finally in Montclair, New Jersey. His third wife, Alice B. Russell, played a major role in the productions of his films and also acted in a number of them. Micheaux died in 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Before becoming an author, film director and independent producer, Micheaux was briefly a Pullman Porter and a farmer in Gregory County, South Dakota. After some success as a homesteader on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, a three year drought destroyed his crops. His brief success as a farmer followed by what he has referenced as “peculiar circumstances” changed the course of his life, and he began writing and publishing.
Oscar Micheaux's first film, The Homesteader, was released in 1919 and was adapted from his novel of the same name. It was the first film to include an all-black cast. As an independent filmmaker of Micheaux Pictures Corporation (founded in 1918), Micheaux is credited with 44 films between 1919 and 1948. This includes his first sound film, The Exile (1931); Temptation (1935); God’s Stepchildren (1938); Lying Lips (1939); The Notorious Elinor Lee (1940), and his final film, The Betrayal (1948), which was adapted from his novel, The Wind from Nowhere.
Micheaux’s race films, musicals, comedies, westerns, romances, and gangster films included themes such as African Americans passing for white, interracial marriage, and legal injustices. The roles played by African Americans in his films were a far cry from the stereotypical “Uncle Toms” and “Mammy” portrayals viewers were used to seeing during the early 20th century. Black actors in Micheaux’s films played the roles of doctors, businessman, detectives, and lawyers. However, he did receive criticism for giving lead roles to light-skinned African American actors. Nevertheless, his movies challenged the dominant society and provided a window into black life and the African American perspective on race.