Today: Oscar Micheaux, the father of African-American film making.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1919, Oscar faced almost overwhelming odds against his success. In Los Angeles at that time, like the rest of America, segregation prevailed.
Where would he live? There were few places blacks could call home. Where would he eat? Most restaurants didn’t serve black people. Where would he get money to make movies? Few blacks could borrow money for anything.
But Oscar had overcome segregation’s brutal limits before. Born in 1884 to former slaves, he was one of 11 children and grew up in Great Bend, Kansas. From his earliest days he started working, first as a shoe shine boy and later as a railroad porter.
And whatever restrictions he faced, no-one could stop Oscar from dreaming. After learning about homesteading, in which one could claim un-owned land by occupying it for an extended period of time and putting it to productive use, he homesteaded a farm in South Dakota.
Educational opportunities for most African Americans at that time were sharply limited. But if one could read and write, one could self-educate. Oscar read extensively and began writing stories he hoped to sell.
But publishing companies rarely published Negro writings so he formed his own publishing firm and built a successful business by selling his books door to door. Then he saw something even bigger. Within those books were stories he felt belonged on the movie screen.
But where would he get the money to make those films? Oscar was hard working and persuasive and now successful in business and in farming. With his charm and his sales skills, he developed a network of white farmers and presented his film ideas to them.
He explained how he would initially hold his costs down by filming not in Hollywood but around his South Dakota farm. He convinced them he could get his films distributed to movie theaters and they would make a lot of money.
As a result, they bought shares in Oscar’s movie production company. Now he had the money to make films. Green had prevailed over black.
In 1919, Oscar wrote, produced and directed “The Homesteader,” a film about a lone black homesteader in the Dakotas who falls in love with a woman he believes to be white and she too believes she is white.
This inter-racial love is forbidden by law and the couple is broken up. The homesteader marries a black woman but the marriage is a disaster. Eventually, after a series of plot twists the truth of the “white” woman’s heritage is revealed and being of the same race, they again fall in love and the film ends happily.
It was a box office hit and the first of 44 films Oscar would make between 1919 and 1948. In those years, some of his films “crossed over” meaning they were allowed to be shown to white audiences, where their appeal built a substantial following.
In the early years, before the major Hollywood studios made “race movies” featuring black casts, Oscar’s movies became a source of black pride for they presented African Americans in realistic roles, not ugly racial stereotypes. And Oscar provided black employment in Hollywood.
In addition to Oscar’s success in the movie business, he wrote and published seven novels, one of which became a best seller.
Oscar enjoyed tremendous success at a time when most doors were closed to blacks. And as a businessman, he did everything within his power to open those doors and provide opportunity to others.
But in 1951 while on a business trip to North Carolina, 67 year old Oscar died suddenly. He was survived by his wife Alice.
In terms of his legacy, in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments, the Director’s Guild of America each year presents the Oscar Micheaux Award. And on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, his brass star shines brightly as a beacon to all.
In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service paid its respects by issuing an Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp.
But most important to us is how Oscar overcame seemingly impossible barriers to succeed time and again. It grew out of a state of mind, that refused to acknowledge there wasn’t a way to attain what he wanted if he thought it through carefully and worked hard to make it happen.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you have a difficult dream, use your wits and apply your energy. You may attain that dream or you may find something even more attractive along the path. Either way you will grow from the experience and feel better about yourself knowing you had the courage to pursue your dream.
In the next KazanToday:
How a woman took the 9/11 tragedy, which killed her son, and used it to uplift the lives of thousands of others.