This Prolific Black Man Was Fed Up With Whitewashed Movies

Oscar Micheaux/Author Unknown /Wikimedia/Public Domain

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The riveting story of Oscar Micheaux’s ascent in the film industry teaches us a valuable lesson about the power of building independent businesses and taking control of our own destiny.

Arguably the most prolific African-American independent filmmaker in history, Micheaux birthed an entirely new genre of films called “race films” in the early 1900s. These films starred Black actors and were intended for a Black audience.

After holding several unfulfilling jobs and being displeased with what others thought of as the good life, he decided to chronicle his life experiences into novels that would eventually become the foundation for his films.

At the time, the film industry was far from accepting of Black films so Micheaux had to get creative about getting his stories in front of the masses. Micheaux became self-sufficient and utilized his charisma and connections from previous jobs to fund and produce his own films.

Although he had miserable experiences in his past jobs, those positions equipped him with the business acumen and contacts necessary for him to go into business for himself.

In fact, Micheaux started his own film company after refusing to sell one of his stories to a major production firm because they would not allow him to be directly involved in its adaptation.

This brave decision catalyzed all of his subsequent success and demonstrated that he knew the value of his stories and would settle for nothing less than he deserved.

Micheaux’s films tackled issues of interracial romance, colorism, and white prejudice during a time when Hollywood focused narrowly on stereotyping Blacks as unsophisticated Negroes. He moved away from these images and created complex characters that more accurately depicted the realities of Black life.

His philosophy was that the only way to bring African-Americans to greater heights was to elevate consciousness about racial iniquities.

Micheaux’s seminal works The Homesteader (1919) and Within Our Gates (1920) bring to light the trials and tribulations of mixed-race relationships and explore the dangers associated with them. These films questioned the value systems of both Blacks and whites and disrupted traditional narratives about race-mixing.

As Black people we have a history of making a way out of no way. Micheaux had no blueprint for how to operate outside of the mainstream film industry, yet he pioneered a path and amassed immense success.

His enduring legacy as the first African-American to show a film in a white theatre marks the beginning of Black people’s visibility on the big screen and a new lens to view race relations in America.

He had no formal film school training or experience, just the tenacity and will to bring his vision to fruition. Click here to watch some of his films.

It is always incredible to share uplifting stories of African-Americans excelling in fields that historically excluded us, but the real beauty is in the spirit of resiliency and persistence that characterize these innovators. Micheaux exemplifies the timeless quality of self-sufficiency that has been a part of the advancement of Black people for centuries.

We should constantly remind ourselves of our rich cultural achievements and remember that we are a people who have and will continue to achieve no matter what obstacles we see in our way. 

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