WITHIN OUR GATES (Oscar Micheaux, 1920, USA, 79m, BW)
Cast: William Smith, Charles Lucas, William Stark, James Ruffin, Bernice Ladd, Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Running Time: 79 min.
In this early silent film from pioneering director Oscar Micheaux, kindly Sylvia Landry (Flo Clements) takes a fundraising trip to Boston in hopes of collecting $5,000 to keep a Southern school for impoverished black children open to the public. She then meets the warmhearted Dr. Vivian (William Smith), who falls in love with Sylvia and travels with her back to the South. There, Dr. Vivian learns about Sylvia's shocking, tragic past and realizes that racism has changed her life forever.
Dubbed in Spanish and titled La Negra, the film was restored by the Smithsonian Institute after being unavailable for 72 years. Some sources have stated that the film was based on the Leo M. Frank murder case; other references have said Oscar Micheaux's 1921 film The Gunsaulus Mystery was a re-edited version of Within Our Gates. We know these claims are inaccurate but, for the record, here is a brief synopsis of the existing film: After a successful harvest, black sharecropper Jasper Landry prepares a bill for plantation owner Philip Girdlestone. Eph, a local gossip and troublemaker, visits Girdlestone and warns him that Landry plans to educate his children and will not compromise on the payment he expects to receive from the plantation owner. When Landry calls on Girdlestone, he is rudely dismissed but is later accused of his murder by Eph when the plantation owner is discovered dead in his home.
Within Our Gates stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained a scene in which a black man is lynched by a white mob. At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform. Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protestors against the film were black activists.
Believed lost for many decades, a print of Within Our Gates was discovered in Spain during the 1990s, intact aside from a missing scene and the conversion of the subtitles to Spanish. Like other Micheaux movies, the film was ignored by white culture during his lifetime, but today the movie has a respectable 1293 user votes at imdb.com. The user rating of 6.3 out of 10 suggests that a majority of viewers recognize its historical significance, but are underwhelmed with its cinematic quality.
Oscar Micheaux is well-known to film scholars as the leading black director during his lifetime. The present movie is the earliest surviving feature-length film directed by an African-American. Micheaux directed one prior feature, The Homesteader (1919), unfortunately lost. Later Micheaux silents confirmed to exist include Body and Soul (1925) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920). Wages of Sin (1929), and a few later films, survive but are talkies.
How I felt about it. Micheaux had to work on a tiny budget, which forced him to use existing structures for sets. He was more interested in characters than continuity. Indeed, characters often disappear from the storyline suddenly and often permanently, leaving us to wonder why they were included in the film at all. Chief among these are Old Ned the preacher, Conrad Drebert the former soldier, and Philip Genry the detective. Even Dr. Vivian, arguably the male lead, serves no purpose other than to compel a happy ending by marrying Sylvia, a proposal that comes out of nowhere.
Such characters are unnecessary to the major storyline, which has our heroine Sylvia trying to save the rural Southern school for blacks, or the more memorable secondary storyline, in which Sylvia's adoptive parents are lynched for a crime they did not commit. But all the characters have an allegorical purpose. They represent traits that Micheaux either approves of, or condemns. Alma is the only character that falls into both categories. In her first appearance, she is jealous, and successfully connives to separate Sylvia from her fiancé. She shows up again much later in the movie as a romantic intercessory for Sylvia. Mrs. Warwick is the most interesting of the "good" characters. A liberal white philanthropist, she saves Sylvia's impoverished school. Warwick is equivalent to the "Good German" presented in anti-Nazi movies, to affirm that not all Germans are bad, or in this case, not all whites are out to lynch, cheat, or subjugate blacks.
Other obvious "good" characters include our courageous heroine, Sylvia; noble intellectual Dr. Vivian, and the schoolteacher couple Reverend and Constance Jacobs. Each of these characters is rewarded for their virtue: Sylvia and Dr. Vivian marry, and the Jacobs' school is saved. Compare that to the fate of the worst of the "bad" characters. Career criminal and murderer Larry Prichard is shot, as is unjust landlord Philip Gridlestone, and the white farmer who murders him. Mugging and snivelling Stepin Fetchit imitator Efram (E.G. Tatum) is lynched. Alma repents her sins, and Old Ned at least recognizes his, and both are spared immediate divine retribution.
Old Ned is the most complex "bad" character. Among whites, he is obliging as Efram. Among blacks, he is stentorian. When alone, though, he shows a third face, apologetic for his public behavior. Within Our Gates makes more sense as a morality play than as a drama. In either event, the film is a fascinating perpective of black America from nearly a century ago, a counterpoint to what is arguably the most influential silent film, The Birth of a Nation (1915).
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