Within Our Gates (1920)
The earliest surviving film of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a very in-your-face response to the off-handed racism of most of cinema at the time, particularly D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Not necessarily the most fun experience to watch, it is nevertheless a fascinating document from the “other side” of history.
Evelyn Preer (introduced in the titles as a “renowned Negro artist”) plays Sylvia, a Southern African American woman living in the North with her friend Alma (Floy Clements, called “Flo” in the intertitles). Sylvia is engaged to serviceman Conrad (James D. Ruffin), but Alma secretly wants him for herself, setting up the first conflict of the film. When he announces his return from overseas, Alma hides the letter and sees to it that he will find Sylvia with an unnamed white man (whose presence isn’t explained until the final reel). Meanwhile Sylvia has been ducking the advances of Larry, Alma’s step brother (Jack Chenault), who is being investigated by a righteous detective (William Smith) at the behest of the police. When he gets into a shootout with some gamblers, Larry makes for Alma’s place, where Sylvia has dreamed that he is a murderer. All that aside for the moment, when Conrad sees Sylvia and the white man, he blows his top and calls off the engagement.
Sylvia, now freed of a relationship that didn’t look all that promising in the first place, decides to dedicate herself to teaching Black children in the South. She joins a school called Piney Woods that is run by African Americans and is providing education to the children of poor sharecroppers who never saw the inside of a classroom before. Soon, the school is in financial difficulty, and she volunteers to go North on a fundraising trip. That trip consists of a series of near-disasters that actually have happy results. First, her purse is snatched, but the thief is pursued by Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), a very earnest do-gooder who falls for Sylvia. Next, she sees a small child about to be hit by a speeding car. She saves the child but is hit herself. The owner turns out to be Mrs. Elena Warwick (“Mrs. Evelyn”), a rich philanthropist looking for someone to throw money at. She takes Sylvia into her care and listens to her story of her need. Before giving her the money, though, she consults with a friend, the racist Mrs. Stratton (Bernice Ladd), who advises her to give her money to a Black preacher instead. We see a flashback of one of his sermons, in which he hops around and tells his congregation to wait for Heaven for their reward instead of making change on Earth. We also see him get money from white men for keeping Black people docile. Mrs. Warwick decides to fund the school instead.
Sylvia returns to the school with the money, but all is not well. Her boss proposes, but she refuses because she is now in love with Dr. Vivian. Then Larry shows up, on the run from the police and tries blackmailing her with some as-yet-unspecified secret from her past to steal from the school. She will not do this, of course, and so flees North once again. Dr. Vivian learns that she has disappeared and begins to search for her. Meanwhile, Larry has returned to Alma and is wounded in a failed bank heist. Dr. Vivian by chance ends up treating Larry and meets Alma. Alma tells Dr. Vivian about Sylvia’s past, leading to an extended flashback sequence that takes up most of the third act of the film. It transpires that Sylvia was an adopted child, raised by the Landrys, who managed to provide her with an education. She uses her knowledge to help her step-parents get out of debt to the local white landlord, Philip Gridlestone (Ralph Johnson). This angers him and he threatens to foreclose on them before they can pay off what they owe, and when Landry goes to see Gridlestone, the gossipy Black servant Efram (E.G. Tatum) overhears raised voices. Then a shot rings out! As the audience sees, a local white farmer has appeared at the window with a rifle and shot Mr. Gridlestone, but Landry has grabbed Gridlestone’s pistol in the confusion and soon Efram is telling all the white folks in town that Landry did the deed. Needing no further evidence, all the grizzled farmers of the area form into a lynch mob.
Sylvia and her adoptive parents go on the run through the woods, with dogs and farmers tracking them. When it takes a little too long to catch them, the bored mob lynches Efram for good measure, putting the lie to his idea that the “whi’ folks loves me!” Meanwhile, some of the posse see a figure crawling through the woods, and shoot him down, only to discover it to be a white man. As it happens, they (or “Divine Justice” as the intertitles have it) have gotten the real killer. Sylvia has gone back to the house to collect some necessities, so she is separated from the family when they are caught and lynched, but she is still in peril when Gridlestone’s brother, also an older white man, catches her alone and chases her, intent on rape. He comes very close to doing the deed, but when he sees a familiar scar on Sylvia’s shoulder, he realizes that she is his mixed-race daughter by a servant. He backs off and we realize that he was the man Conrad saw Sylvia with at the beginning of the film – her biological father, not a lover. He was the one who subsequently paid for her education, out of guilt. After hearing about her life, Dr. Vivian meets with Sylvia; he encourages her to love her country and take pride in the contributions of African Americans. He professes his love for her, and the film ends with their marriage.
Before I start my analysis, I’d like to share something of my writing process with you. In general, before I write my reviews, I do not read what others have to say about the movies I’m reviewing. Once in a while, especially if I’ve made any big statements of fact, I will double-check online after finishing a draft in case I’ve made any glaring errors (The Silent Era and Fritzi Kramer have each saved my bacon a few times). But generally what you get on this blog is an impressionistic set of reactions by a reasonably informed modern viewer, not a historical research report. (Lately I’ve been thinking of posting a disclaimer in the “About” section: “This blog is not a peer-reviewed source and should not be cited as such for your paper/article/Wikipedia entry.” Consider yourself duly warned.) I’m more interested in recording my own journey in watching movies 100 years after they came out, than I am in documenting the “truth” about those movies, something which commenters appear to miss sometimes.
I’m telling you all this, because I threw that rule out the window this time. After seeing this movie, I needed to work to understand it in context before I started writing about it. Much to my surprise, I found (thank you again, Fritzi!) that there was an article out there by someone I’ve met: Dr. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I studied during my brief period as a PhD student in German history. (I should mention that we spoke perhaps all of twice, and neither time did we discuss silent film, which wasn’t a particular interest of mine at the time). You should really read his article, which is more informed and compelling than anything I’m about to say, but what reassured me somewhat was that he seemed to see a lot of what I saw in this movie.
For one thing, it is pretty rough. At a certain point in the movie I felt like I was watching a series of disconnected vignettes about the character of Sylvia and her relations, not a coherent movie. We shouldn’t be too harsh with Micheaux about that: at least some of this film has been lost, and the intertitles were backward-translated from a print in Spanish that may or may not have really captured their original clarifying intent. But, he was very new to the concept of building a filmic narrative, working with a minuscule budget without any help or mentorship from anyone with experience in the industry. However, the film’s sincerity raises it above its apparent defects pretty effectively. And for another thing, it gets pretty ugly in that third act flashback. The attempted rape is taken a lot further than I expected, and the lynch mob sequence is just as shocking now as it was then. There’s something particularly disturbing about the off-handed way the white mob kills what seems to be a comic relief character, Efram the “good negro” servant. And Micheaux lingers on his corpse’s face with its distended tongue sticking out. Not a pretty sight. But violence isn’t, in reality, a pretty thing and I think if anything this movie forced me to reflect on how we accept off-handed violence in film without feeling much of anything most of the time, in part because filmmakers since Griffith have been romanticizing and glorifying it for us by showing the illusion more than the reality.
There’s two other things that stood out to me, although I’m inclined to agree with Brundage that this is a film that has new discoveries with each re-viewing. One is the way Micheaux portrayed the Black church as a kind of trap to keep African Americans docile, but even more interestingly the way he used the preacher to demonstrate the concept of the “double consciousness” of African Americans – who simultaneously see themselves through the eyes of a racist white society and their own. This is pretty sophisticated for any medium in 1920 – W.E.B. DoBois had first written about it in 1903, though I suspect many Black people had already been aware of it, even if the term didn’t yet exist. The other thing this movie depicts, possibly inadvertently, is the delicate political history of Black hair. At the time, many African American men deliberately straightened their hair and colored it, to try to make it look more like white men’s hair. This is true of many of the actors Micheaux uses. Jack Chenault, as Larry, is one strong example. But, it isn’t necessarily tied to his status as a villain or person of weak morals – the detective, played by William Smith, almost looks like he’s wearing a white man’s toupee. For Micheaux, this may have just been the way many Black men looked, not a statement of any kind. Today, the issue affects Black women in the workplace more than men, but it still persists. It’s a bit jarring to see how endemic it was 100 years ago.
There is a lot else that could be said about this film, but I’ll leave it here. It is the ultimate rebuttal to anyone who says we should just ignore racism in historic art and artifacts because it was “OK” then. It distinctly was not, for the people who suffered from it, and they had voices to say so. These voices, like the history of the Tulsa Massacre, have been largely silenced since then, which speaks more to how racism persists than to how we as a society have “gotten over it.” This movie is worth seeing just because it overcomes that history of silence.
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Starring: Evelyn Preer, Floy Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, William Smith, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, Mrs. Evelyn, Ralph Johnson, E.G. Tatum, Mattie Edwards
Run Time: 1 Hr, 19 Min