Hollywood Flashback: Oscar Micheaux's Pioneering Black Film Studio Was Founded 100 Years Ago

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Oscar Micheaux (right) in a promo photo from the early '20s.

"He's an example of someone who had the philosophy of, 'nothing is impossible,'" says Louis Gossett Jr., who presented the Directors Guild of America's lifetime achievement award to Micheaux's family in 1986. "In terms of black filmmaking, he planted the original seed."

In terms of African American filmmaking, it's hard to be more of a pioneer than Oscar Micheaux, the fifth of 11 children born to former slaves in southern Illinois in 1884.

He dropped out of high school and within a few years worked his way into the relatively well-paying job of Pullman train porter — but quit to become one of the rare black homesteaders in South Dakota. The farming experience led him to write novels. One of them, The Homesteader, was good enough to attract attention from the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Co., the first all-black movie producer. But Micheaux decided in 1919 to make the picture himself.

The silent film earned rave reviews, and the 35-year-old's career in black-themed "race" movies was off and running. "He's an example of someone who had the philosophy of, 'nothing is impossible,' " says Louis Gossett Jr., who presented the Directors Guild of America's lifetime achievement award to Micheaux's family in 1986. "In terms of black filmmaking, he planted the original seed."

Micheaux made roughly 44 films before his death in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1951. As director/producer, he financed those movies any way he could, including selling stock that was rarely repaid and promising investors he'd put their children in the films. His moviemaking technique boiled down to shooting one take and moving quickly to the next. One of his biographers said he "made movies like a man running from a subpoena, which he was."

While Micheaux's films were rough-hewn, they featured corrupt clergymen, interracial marriage, lynching, racial pride and self-hatred, themes that resonated with his audience. While he's now nearly unknown, Micheaux's name might soon be in the limelight again. Zadan/Meron Productions currently has a Micheaux biopic starring Tyler Perry in development at HBO. 

This story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.