Oscar Micheaux was the most influential film maker to contradict Holly¬ wood’s depictions of African-Americans. He was bom into a family of 13 siblings in Cairo, Illi¬ nois, and left home as a young teenager. Micheaux took a number of odd jobs before finally becoming a Pullman porter who traveled extensively throughout the nation, becoming ever more infatuated with the West.
He settled a homestead in South Dako¬ ta in 1904 and founded his own publishing company so that he could release his own novels about African- American experiences in the West. His first book,
The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, was published in 1913 and pro¬ moted by Micheaux himself, who traveled in Western costume, selling his books directly to African-American communities. Selling them by hand, Micheaux built a national audience for each of his ten novels.
When he was approached by a produc¬ tion company interested in adapting his novel The Homesteader to the screen, Micheaux demanded that he be allowed to direct it. His demands were rejected and Micheaux refused the project, but he was inspired by the idea. He founded the Oscar Micheaux Corporation, an independent film company in New York, and set to work in the production of non-racist representations of African-Americans in film.
Focusing on middle-class characters, African-Americans who were neither impoverished nor miserable, Micheaux created over 35 films, including Homesteader (1919), Within Our Gates, The Brute, Sym¬ bol of the Unconquered (1920), Son of Satan (1922), Harlem After Midnight (1934) and God’s Stepchildren (1937).
Determined to counteract Hollywood’s stereotypical cardboard characterizations of African-Americans, Micheaux focused on a segment of the population engrossed in the middle-class ideals of American society.
Though he is sometimes criticized for evad¬ ing the issues of poverty and racial discrim¬ ination, his ideal was to create a new char¬ acterization that did not portray African- Americans as devoted servants or African savages. To these ends, Micheaux was the first to create an influential and intelligent body of film that treated black Americans as simply Americans.