An intense and controversial picture that deals with racism, lynching, crime and melodrama, this is the earliest surviving feature film from pioneering director Oscar Micheaux. Not an easy film to watch but a necessary one.
I’m going to come right out and say it: Within Our Gates is not an easy film to watch. It never has been. Released on the heels of Chicago’s Red Summer, Within Our Gates deals with racism in its many guises and graphically portrays lynching. There are reports of audiences walking out of the film if they were allowed to see it at all once the censors took a gander.
This is the second picture that pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux directed and the earliest one that has survived to the present day. Rediscovered in Spain, it has been restored and its title cards translated back into English but I should note that reels of material are still missing. This fact will, of course, be factored into the review.
This film is often cited as Micheaux’s response to D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation. That film celebrated the myth of the happy slave, glamorized the KKK, used white actors in blackface to portray freed slaves and biracial men as rapacious beasts and applauded the suppression of black voters. A common defense of the film is to state that we need to look at context. Very well.
Within Our Gates is a complex, dark and emotional film. Like I said, not easy to watch. It starts out as a crime melodrama before layering on social issues and concluding with a harrowing flashback that includes the lynching of an innocent black family. (Attempts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation were very much in the news before and after the release of Within Our Gates. You can view an interactive map of documented lynchings and race riots in the United States here.)
The film opens simply enough with a love triangle. Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) is engaged to Conrad (James D. Ruffin) but her cousin, Alma (Flo Clements), wants him for herself. She intercepts a telegram from Conrad and arranges matters so that he sees the innocent Sylvia in an apparently compromising situation. Heartbroken, Sylvia travels south and gets a job at a school dedicated to educating low income black children.
Fulfilled in her new work, Sylvia is horrified to learn that the school is in financial trouble and will close unless $5,000 is raised immediately. She travels north to try to secure the funds and meets Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), a physician and burgeoning social crusader. In other words, he does a lot of research. Not the most cinematic activity.
Anyway, Sylvia sees a child about to be struck by a car. She pushes the kid out of the way but is struck herself. The owner of the car, the wealthy Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), has Sylvia taken into the vehicle and driven to the hospital.
It’s worth noting that in 1917, Micheaux’s estranged wife, Orlean, was injured by a runaway horse and taken to the closest hospital, which turned her away because of her race. She had to be transported to a different hospital and succumbed to her injuries. In contrast, Sylvia receives prompt and caring treatment thanks to Mrs. Warwick.
It looks like the school will be saved but Mrs. Warwick wavers in her support after a visit from Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), another well-heeled white woman. She feels that education would be wasted in this case and that Mrs. Warwick would do better to make a donation to a church that preaches a gospel of willful ignorance. Pure paternalism, in other words. (These scenes are interspersed with a very sardonic portrayal of a religious service.) However, Mrs. Stratton’s plan backfires when Mrs. Warwick decides that she will not donate $5,000 but $50,000 to the school.
The last third of the film is the section that is the most famous and shocking. A repentant Alma tells Dr. Vivian about Sylvia’s tragic past and we are shown an extended flashback. (Spoilers ahoy, obviously.) Sylvia’s adopted parents are framed for murder and lynched. One can easily understand why some members of the audience walked out—I couldn’t sleep after rewatching the film for this review and I was never anywhere near the Red Summer. The scenes are harrowing and heartbreaking and all too real. These aren’t fantasy situations, they were being played out every day.
This film explores the nooks and crannies of racism, from the charming townsfolk-turned-lynch mob to the more genteel, drawing room-friendly bigotry of Geraldine Stratton, who could easily have been D.W. Griffith’s sister. Finally, the rape scene of The Birth of a Nation is reversed with a biracial woman being attacked by a wealthy white southerner.
The African-American characters range from the kindly schoolteachers to the ruthless criminals to the simpering preacher, Old Ned, (Micheaux had very little use for hypocritical men of the cloth in his films) to the obsequious servant who sends Sylvia’s family to their deaths. Within Our Gates also rewards rewatches as it is deeply layered in rich detail, from the Old Ned’s code-switching to finding all of Micheaux’s digs at D.W. Griffith’s favorite tropes. (Do read this essay by W. Fitzhugh Brundage for a breakdown of how Micheaux made specific responses to Griffith.)
It is a movie that sticks with you, haunts you. It gets into your bones and your soul. It may be too much for some viewers today and I understand that but if you are able to see it, I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity.
This is an important film to me personally. Like most silent movie newcomers, my early exposure had been to polished Hollywood features and arty European films. They included adult subject matter, of course, and I enjoyed them very much but Micheaux’s raw direction and unvarnished social statements took my breath away. It exposed all the excuses for racism found in silent film as brittle, fragile and mean. I think it helped me on my path to radicalization.
The filmmaker himself is as interesting as anything on the screen. (An HBO biopic is said to be in the works.) A former homesteader, Micheaux published a semi-autobiographical novel and had tasted success as an independent publisher. An avid moviegoer, his first contact with the nascent African-American film industry was when he got in touch with George Johnson, who had founded Lincoln Films with his brother, Noble Johnson. Lincoln was ambitious but it had only released three-reel pictures and Micheaux dreamed of feature length, eight reels!
Micheaux did indeed adapt his novel, The Homesteader, into an eight-reel picture on a total budget of $15,000. This included advertising lithos and four prints. For the sake of contrast and because it would have used similar settings, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1918 version of The Squaw Man cost about $44,000. So, shoestring.
Of course, all of Micheaux’s films were famously low in budget and this didn’t allow for fancy sets or even retakes. He made the most of his money by hiring stage stars who had name recognition (good for box office) and acting ability (good for one-and-done shoots). She doesn’t fit this pattern but Micheaux was particularly fortunate in his leading lady, Evelyn Preer. She had received her early education in acting as a vaudeville performer and a street preacher and had previously starred in The Homesteader, her film debut.
The story of Within Our Gates takes many twists and turns but Preer is able to twist and turn with it, always remaining believable and appealing even when the plot throws a curveball. The rest of the cast varies in quality with Mattie Edwards giving a heartrending performance as the doomed adopted mother of Sylvia while James D. Ruffin practically gnaws at the drapes as the heartless Conrad. Bernice Ladd sends off a Gishy vibe that was surely intentional and William Smith is suitably noble as Gentry the detective.
The film has a rough, unedited quality to it (as do the other Micheaux films I have viewed) but this works to its advantage, giving it a documentary feel. It is also worth mentioning that Micheaux brought much of his real life to his films and his personal experiences color nearly every plot element and character. This is his truth, for better or worse, real events interpreted by a strong personality. The whole thing ends with a plea to patriotism and praise of bootstrapping.
The roughness of this production should also be forgiven once a little bit of context is understood. Filmmakers who catered to black audiences were cut off from the financial assistance and technical expertise of large studios—they had to be chief cook and bottle washer and they had to make sure that each film they released would pay for the next. Prints were an enormous expense and just to give you an example of how tight these budgets were, Oscar Micheaux printed four copies of The Homesteader total. Is it any wonder that it is considered a lost film?
To make sure that nothing happened to these precious prints, representatives would personally travel with them and hand deliver them to the theaters that had agreed to book them. So instead of just planning his new film, Micheaux would have to act as courier and also face down censor boards determined to snip as much as possible. In fact, Micheaux seemed to be invigorated by his battles with censors and gleefully turned their paternalistic attitudes against them.
All of this risks turning Micheaux into some kind of superhero but it is worth noting that he thrilled in sensationalizing controversial content, he was and is criticized for colorism and perpetuating stereotypes and his business dealings are not above reproach. Hagiographies are worthless and take away from the portrait of a complicated man and a complicated artist who was fighting an uphill battle to carve a place for himself in motion picture history.
Within Our Gates does not exist in vacuum and any time the film is mentioned, we must also take D.W. Griffith into account. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with feeling that Griffith has problems but that his films are worthy of study. What irritates me are people who try to whitewash Griffith, absolve him of blame or act as though liking his films is required for silent movie fans.
One particular argument sticks in my craw and it’s directly related to the matter at hand: “D.W. Griffith invented the African-American film industry, if you think about it. Heck, he created Oscar Micheaux’s career and jump-started the NAACP due to the Birth of a Nation protests. We should thank him!”
I’m sorry, that thud was my jaw hitting the floor. Yes, this is real, people do make this argument. I have the Twitter scars to prove it.
Let’s break this down: When someone does a bad thing and other people react by doing a good thing in response, the person doing the bad thing doesn’t get credit for the good thing. If a reckless driver runs over a child at an unmarked intersection and the city council approves a traffic light as a result, the reckless driver doesn’t get a sign at the intersection thanking him for his service.
Oscar Micheaux worked hard and carved himself a niche in film history with his own two hands and with the help of other black film pioneers. He scraped together money for budgets, gathered settings and costumes and casts, marketed his pictures and fought censor boards tooth and nail. He was inspired to respond to a film that contained vicious slander and calls for racist violence but Griffith, the guy who made that film, doesn’t get karmic brownie points because of this fact.
Also, way to erase George and Noble Johnson from history, dudes, not to mention early African-American filmmaking in Fort Lee, New Jersey and the career of William Foster. Black Americans would have made movies with or without Micheaux. (Though film history would have been much more dull without him!)
Again, if someone else wants to watch a problematic film and discuss it in a rational manner, it’s no skin off my nose. And if they don’t want to see it at all, well, that’s their business. But when people go proselytizing about how if you don’t enjoy a film that contains racism you must be lacking as a movie fan, then I get annoyed. That’s quite a hill to die on.
The Birth of a Nation was never not political or controversial. In fact, I dare say that the controversy helped drive its box office success. Pretending otherwise and demanding that we ignore the racism when discussing the film is like wanting to discuss Basic Instinct but demanding that we ignore the sex and nudity as factors in its success. (Yes, I actually read one review in which the author wailed that nobody is capable of discussing Birth without bringing up racism. Um, yeah. Kind of like how people can’t discuss Jaws without bringing up sharks. A real mystery there, Sherlock.)
If more people are watching Within Our Gates than The Birth of a Nation, well, that’s okay by me. Oscar Micheaux’s films were denied a wide audience while he was alive but at least home video has leveled the playing field somewhat. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Examining Oscar Micheaux’s art is always worth our time as film fans. I remain impressed by his guts, nerve and determination to portray various aspects of the African-American experience on the screen despite the overwhelming obstacles he faced.
Within Our Gates is not an easy film to watch but it is a necessary film. Its power is still potent and it reaches across almost a century to touch viewers. The beautiful restoration does much to enhance the experience.
Where can I see it?
Within Our Gates is available as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set on DVD and Bluray. It is also available as a standalone DVD.
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