South Dakota

The saga of Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaker of South Dakota
Oscar Micheaux
Oscar Micheaux

The saga of Oscar Micheaux in South Dakota is a fantastic portrayal of one man’s imagination, perseverance, and entrepreneurial energy— one of the best examples that one can find among all the pioneering tales of the Dakotas. What was a black American—a mere homesteader to boot—doing in South Dakota making “Negro” movies? In 1919!
Oscar Micheaux, the son of former slaves, grew up in a family of eleven in Great Bend, Kansas. His early wage-earning efforts consisted of random jobs such as shoe-shining and working as a railway porter. When some Indian reservation lands were opened up to homesteading in south central South Dakota, Micheaux saw an opportunity to improve his station in life. Owning a piece of farm land had great appeal; the US was still an agrarian nation and millions looked to farming as the road to prosperity.

Micheaux was able to secure some land north of present-day Gregory, South Dakota. The extent to which his farming activities secured his financial or emotional s
Micheaux Homestead
Micheaux Homestead

atisfaction remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that his mind roiled with ideas— ideas that were astounding for their audacity. While toiling on that now frigid, now broiling, prairie, he conceived a plan to write and publish books. And he thought he would make them into movies!

When he was unable to find a publisher, he sold his self-published works door to door. His stories, novels, and subsequent movies, were what is often termed “racial.” That is, they were produced for consumption by the American black population. Many publishers, movie producers, and stage companies at that time produced “Negro” products.

In 1919 he was able to recruit some small-time investors to help him produce a movie based on his novel, -The Homesteader-. He assembled film equipment, actors, technicians, and transportation in Chicago and drove to a location thirty-five miles west of his original homestead near Winner, South Dakota. There he produced a full-length feature film, The Homesteader; it is often claimed to be the first such product produced, directed, and written by a black American. This was followed by a prodigious sum of work. He eventually produced over forty movies and was able to recruit a number of esteemed performers, the world-famous Paul Robeson being one. Many of his later films featured serious social themes such as child abuse and religious hypocrisy.

The artistic achievements of Micheaux can be debated and analyzed endlessly. (He does have a “star” on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.”) But no one can question his grit and his determination to create a solid business success out of his creative impulses. He was not an idle dreamer; he was not penning a few lines of poetry for his own amusement; he was not writing stories that he would “some day” submit to a publisher; nor, most importantly, did he allow his spirit and imagination evaporate while bent over the plow. No, he got busy.

Micheaux’s ability to transform his artistic imaginings into bold and productive business endeavors may have been his most profound talent. What inspiration he wrought directly from his time on the South Dakota prairie can only be a matter of pure speculation. Was it the solitude of his rural surroundings? Was it social isolation?— the result of being the only black in a white community. Or did his spirit prosper from the quietude brought on by the long winters or the becalmed,immobile summer evenings, freeing his mind to indulge in great leaps of imagination, undisturbed by the rattle of city life, civic obligations, or mundane distractions.

One wonders how many others envisioned extraordinary life narratives while walking the furrow, sitting on the tractor seat, toiling in the grain bin. How many dreams were crushed by the weight of daily survival for their family and community? Potential poets, artists, sculptors, writers, geniuses, wandered across the prairie, their minds ablaze with ideas.

Micheaux walked—but he trod a bit further. He went to the crossroads and chose a destination that led to a tangled mixture of joy and heartbreak, to some success and some failure; but, his efforts need always to be honored as a valued reminder of the universal human need to somehow strive, to reach, to risk.

Author: EVM STAFF on 05/08 2008
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