Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company
Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.
The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.
While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.
The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.
As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car. I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.