Director of Photography:
Running time: 78 minutes
A landmark film, Within Our Gates is not the oldest film made by an African-American director, but it is the oldest one that has survived. It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film, made one year after his début, The Homesteader, but more importantly five years after D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates does not merely try to redress Griffith’s depiction of African-Americans: The film is edited in a way clearly influenced by Griffith, but in terms of its narrative, Micheaux’s film is vastly superior to most films of the era, demonstrating a storytelling skill that is particularly suited to the cinema. In one instance, he even anticipates the revolution of Kurosawa’s Rashomon by more than 30 years.
In 1920, Sylvia Landry, who hails from the South, is visiting her cousin Alma in the North, where “the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist—though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.” Sylvia is an educated young woman, who is romantically involved with Conrad Drebert, a soldier stationed in Canada who has asked for her hand in marriage.
However, Alma, a divorcée, has her eyes set on Conrad and through a series of events Conrad discovers Sylvia in a compromising position and has an outburst full of rage. Sylvia returns to the South – Vicksburg, Mississippi, to be precise – where she briefly helps out at a school that educates black children, but when the school’s money runs out, she goes to Boston to secure additional funds. At this point, the film really picks up speed, because it becomes clear Micheaux has no intention of neatly distinguishing between black and white characters as good and bad, respectively.
A charismatic black preacher, Ned, and a servant in the South, Efrem, are represented as backstabbers who would do anything to retain the ear of the white man. In other words, Uncle Toms. On the other hand, while many white characters are violently opposed to any kind of equality for blacks, there are a number of educated people, most importantly a Boston sociologist named Dr Vivian, who are sympathetic to Sylvia, in particular.
Dr Vivian is the only character whose development is problematic. We are shown a number of scenes, revealed as fantasies on his part, between him and the young Sylvia, and while the initial reason for his interest is stated as purely scientific, the so-called study he is undertaking sounds like a crock. In a close-up, we see one of the articles he is reading: “The Negro is a human being. His nature is not different from other human nature. Thus, we must recognize his rights as a human being. Such is the teaching of Christianity.”
What is fascinating about the film is its very rudimentary camerawork: The shots are all static. There is not a single pan in the whole film and very few close-ups, the latter usually saved for moments of intense emotion, such as Alma’s heaving bosom when she concocts an evil plan. But what Micheaux lacked during recording, he made up for during the editing process, not only by means of constructing parallel story lines, as Griffith had done, but by having these story lines metaphorically complement each other, as Abel Gance would do in Napoléon‘s “double storm scene” in 1927. He even includes two scenes, one apparently showing the real events and one the events as recounted by an unreliable witness, which anticipates the work of Akira Kurosawa’s famous Rashomon in 1950. Furthermore, besides the fantasies of Dr Vivian, there is a scene in which Efrem’s greatest fear is quickly realized when the image in his mind becomes the image on-screen.
The film is also broken into two time-frames, as the final 20 minutes are set in the South many years prior to the rest of the plot. It is a flashback that explains the context within which Sylvia has had to survive – a context we were completely unaware of, in which the lynchings of the South and the inequity of life as an African-American at this time in this place are made very clear. It is a brutal sequence, full of attempted sexual assault and physical violence that culminates in an amazing revelation comparable to the infamous final coup de théâtre of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
Within Our Gates is a told with limited means yet very well put together and truly remarkable considering it was the filmmaker’s second film and it was made during the infancy of the cinema. Micheaux has a real sense for storytelling and though his actors often behave in exaggerated fashion, the viewer is more accepting because of the lack of sound, and what we have is a film that serves as a concise but very powerful counterweight to the pro-white vision of the South as made popular by D.W. Griffith. At a moment of great tension in the film, the viewer cannot help but sympathize with an appeal made by Sylvia’s mother, when she asks:
Justice! Where are you? Answer me! How long? Great God almighty, HOW LONG?