WITHIN OUR GATES (1920)

  • Director: Oscar Micheaux
  • Writer: Oscar Micheaux
  • Starring: Evelyn Preer, Floy Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, William Starks, Ralph Johnson, E.G. Tatum, and “Mrs. Evelyn”
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate.com Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on The Film Detective, Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime or The Criterion Channel

Within Our Gates is the earliest movie we’ve covered so far here on the site. Its claim to fame is that it is the earliest feature film, at least that we can still watch, from a Black director. Yet despite this distance in terms of time, there were stretches that I forgot that distance and found myself just into watching a movie. Some of that immediacy may be borne out of the willingness of the movie’s director, Oscar Micheaux, to frankly discuss the racial issues of his day, because in many ways those same racial issues are still with us. This isn’t a story where the lead characters just happen to be Black, as in Eve’s Bayou. Micheaux wants to talk about what it’s really like to be a Black person in 1920 America.

This was actually Micheaux’s second completed film, out of at least 41 that we know about. His first movie, The Homesteader (based on his own novel), along with the majority of his other output, is now lost. This is not particularly unusual for Silent-era movies, unfortunately. Some of the biggest of the early studio films have not survived, either, due to a combination of factors including the fact that (a) nobody really thought anyone would want to watch these movies 50 years on from their release, especially given that there was no such thing as a home video market at the time, and (b) because early nitrate film happened to be extremely flammable, leading to several devastating fires that destroyed many of the negatives that were preserved. Micheaux was a Black filmmaker working outside of the studio system, having to raise the money for his own movies, and the fact that any of his films survive to the present is a testimony to their popularity in his day. 

Within Our Gates, too, was thought to be completely lost for several decades. In the 1970s, a single print was rediscovered in Spain, titled La Negra. The title cards had been translated into Spanish and there was a brief sequence from the middle of the film missing, but this print served as the basis of a full reproduction by the Library of Congress in the early 90s. This included translating the titles back into English, using a style of language derived from Micheaux’s other extant films, along with explanation of the missing scene. This is the version you’ll find available for viewing today.

Evelyn Preer stars as Sylvia Landry, an African-American woman from the South who travels to Boston to visit her cousin and attempt to raise money for the rural Southern school where she works. Soon she becomes involved in romantic shenanigans, in the middle of which she gets hit by a rich white philanthropist lady’s car. This lady comes to visit Sylvia in the hospital, asks what she can do to help, and Sylvia tells her about the school’s plight. The philanthropist asks her friend for advice, and when that friend turns out to be super racist, she pushes back by deciding to donate $50,000 instead of $5,000. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s budding romance with “Dr. Vivian” is threatened when her brother arrives in Boston, claiming he “knows the truth about her past,” and she flees town rather than have this be revealed. 

But Dr. Vivian tracks her down and she describes the events that led to her mother and father’s lynching in Mississippi (the father is falsely accused of murdering a white moneylender who was threatening him about a debt). When the leader of the lynch mob tries to rape Sylvia, he sees a scar she has and realizes she is actually his daughter. She was ashamed of being mixed-race and thought that a respectable “New Negro” like Dr. Vivian would never accept her. But he accepts her and asks her to marry him instead, after giving a speech about how she should be “proud of her country,” including a recitation of the many accomplishments of African-American soldiers in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Many have argued, both at the time of this movie’s release and more recently, that it is clearly intended as a Black rejoinder to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation. Both films have contrasting storylines set in the American North and South, and both climax with dramatic cross-cutting between different scenes. The Birth of a Nation, which I’m sure we’ll get to eventually, has an uneasy place in film history, in that it was the first real American epic, and introduced a wide variety of techniques that had never been seen before and are now standard practice in film language, but is unfortunately also extremely racist. It is basically a heroic account of the original founding of the Ku Klux Klan, with the Klan cast as the heroes. Even by the standards of 1916, it drew massive protests. Micheaux here uses Griffith’s techniques to tell what is in some ways the opposite story: he cuts quickly between the lynching of Sylvia’s parents to her attempted rape, heightening the horror and tension of both scenes. Micheaux is depicting something he and his community had first hand experience with, and I don’t really think a modern director could have done so any more effectively than he does here.

This movie also wants to show that racism is not just a Southern problem, as seen in the depiction of Geraldine Stratton, the philanthropist’s friend who urges her not to “waste money” on schools for Black children because “learning will just hurt their heads,” and is against the 19th Amendment because she’s worried it will let Black women vote. Some have argued that Micheaux may have cast the actress who plays Stratton, Bernice Ladd, specifically because of her resemblance to Lillian Gish, who played a white woman victimized by Black men in The Birth of a Nation. Micheaux also expressed in interviews that he wanted to show the full spectrum of Black experience, both good and bad. All races are depicted as both good and bad, as full of both educated, compassionate people and also lowlifes. This can be seen in the Black servant who thinks he’s gotten in good with white people by fingering Sylvia’s father for the murder, but finds to his horror that he’s about to get lynched as well, and in Pastor Ned, who preaches to Black people that it’s good that they’re poor and uneducated, because that means they’ll get into Heaven, but when he’s alone expresses despondence. He knows the races should be equal and thinks he’s going to Hell. It’s really a fascinating experience.

So I would certainly recommend Within Our Gates to pretty much anyone, whether you’re a film buff, a history lover, or just want to understand other human beings a little bit more. It is movies like this that can help bridge the gulf of a century between us and people at the time. They also show that, though details may change, some things have remained the same over the decades, and people still have the same hopes, fears, and dreams. 

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