Feb 25, 2018
Today’s movie is “Within Our Gates” (1920), the silent film written and directed by Oscar Micheaux. It is the oldest surviving film made by an African-American director. The film was written as a quasi-response to the incredibly racist “The Birth of a Nation” from D.W. Griffith. The film had trouble getting cleared for release, ironically for fears of sparking so-called interracial riots.
Oscar Micheaux was an African-American author, film director and independent producer of both silent and sound films. He founded the Micheaux Film & Book Company, the first production entitled “The Homesteader” is based on his novel called “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader”, which was an enormous success and paved the way for “Within Our Gates”.
“Within Our Gates” follows the journey of Sylvia Lantry (Evelyn Preer), a biracial woman from the Deep South with a dark past, working to raise money for Piney Woods School, a rural school to educate black children. The film has five major sections: an initial scene with her backstabbing friend, Alma Prichard (Floy Clements); the introduction of Piney Woods School and Rev. Wilson Jacobs (S.T. Jacks); her efforts to fundraise by petitioning Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn) and her racist friend, Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd); a flashback to her adopted parents being lynched; and her eventual marriage to Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas).
Micheaux doesn’t shy away from difficult themes in this film. The discussion between Mrs. Warwick and Mrs. Stratton is a nice summary of the polite Northern racism and thought process among upper class whites. A black preacher is used to demonstrate complacency in making sure black folks remain uneducated and, in his words, know their place in the white man’s world. And the heartbreaking lynching scene, spurred on by a wealthy white aristocrat no longer being able to cheat Sylvia’s adopted father because she was educated, is closer to the true nature of lynching than any other film of the time.
“Within Our Gates” is incredibly aware of its time, but also still echoes problems in today’s world. The same polite racism still exists in the North. The media still poorly frames narratives about black individuals. Property is still primarily in the hands of the upper class, either directly or via banks. We’ve come farther than Micheaux ever thought, and we still have a long way to go.
Rotten Tomatoes: NR
One Movie Punch: 7.6/10
“Within Our Gates” is not rated and is available in full on YouTube.