Within Our Gates (1920)


  • directed by Oscar Micheaux
  • starring Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, William Stark, Ralph Johnson, E.G. Tatum, Grant Gorman
  • An educated Negro woman with a painful past dedicates herself to helping a near-bankrupt school for black youths.

If it weren’t for it being found in Spain in the early 1990s and then pieced together and rehabilitated then we still would be without this important document from the beginning of Oscar Micheaux’s filmmaking career. Within Our Gates, the oldest surviving film by an African American director, is not quite his complete statement and vision as some scenes are gone and a lot of the titles had to be converted back to English from the Spanish version that had already gone through a rough translation. However the power of the imagery and story still remains and the sheer quantity of perspectives presented result in it being a thorough snapshot of an America still very much divided by race and prejudice in the years halfway between the abolishment of slavery and Reconstruction Era of the 1860s and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s.

The film paints a picture of many types of prejudice with blacks and whites in the North dealing with not only each other but their views on the South and vice versa. The two predominant types of racism, though, are the mob-mentality-driven almost rabidly racist violent attacks of the South during Sylvia’s younger years—there was a dark cloud over most of the film as it all headed downhill to a brutal one-two punch of the attempted rape of Sylvia and the lynching of her family and Efram–and the institutional racism that she faces in the present as she tries to scrape together any amount of money from any person or agency to simply teach black kids to read.

Sylvia Landry’s travels in the pursuit of funding from South to North and back again and all the many characters she meets creates a rich tapestry in terms of the very confused country that the film was intent on depicting. Consider the character of Geraldine Stratton, a white woman who moved to the North and steadfastly opposes the Women’s Suffrage movement lest it result in black women being able to vote. Micheaux was able to explore the many ways in which such a disgusting past and a too-slow-to-progress present have inspired the best and the worst in individuals on both sides of the racial divide.

There was a clear lack of generalities cast in this film, a trap that is all too easy to fall into when dealing with slavery, racism, and black vs. white issues. Instead, the film presented racism as an entity that even ill-intentioned black people could latch onto to manipulate and exploit their own people. Each character, black or white, came with his or her own unique perspective, some with morals and decency and others without.

In terms of the filmmaking craft of Within Our Gates, I would say the film’s biggest strengths were its editing and the management and pacing of Sylvia’s two different timelines. Perhaps its biggest strength of all though was the ambition of Micheaux to stuff into the film so many concepts, some fleeting, some lasting, but all important to have on record forever, and not to mention the bravery it took to take on such a correct yet controversial counterpoint to Birth of a Nation.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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