The grandson of slaves, Oscar Micheaux made 44 movies, becoming the “Cecil B. De Mille of Race Movies,” and the “Czar of Black Hollywood,” inspired by that obnoxiously racist film from 1915: Birth of a Nation.
As optimists, Americans usually treat inspiration as positive, but fear and fury motivate too. This Oscar who deserved an Oscar but never got one, turned watching Birth of a Nation into the birth of his movie career. And he refused to be shackled by the limitations all blacks endured during what we should call the Awful African-American Purgatory. Living from 1884 to 1951, he was sandwiched into that black state of suspended political animation—post-Civil-War pre-Civil-Rights—when black freedom wasn’t completely denied but not yet achieved. While defying racism, Oscar Micheaux was so upbeat, so patriotic, and so successful, the historian Dan Moos calls him a Black Turnerian. That label embodies the optimism, pragmatism, and nationalism the late-nineteenth-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner found in the American frontier.
Micheaux’s birthplace, Murphysboro, Illinois, in 1884, and upbringing on a Kansas farm with ten siblings, set him up to be a middle American. But his adopted hometown of Gregory, South Dakota, which celebrates his legacy with an annual festival, reflects the frontier pioneer he chose to be. When he was 21 he was already homesteading 160 acres in South Dakota. Tough and ambitious, he found acceptance out West—neighbors complimented him as one of them, by calling him more South Dakotan than black.