Within Our Gates was the second film directed by Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African American writer/director/producer. Released in 1920, as his feature has been completely lost, thisi is now the earliest surviving film directed by an African American.
Stark, ferocious, and at times utterly harrowing, Within Our Gates is a searing look at racial injustice in America. The plot primarily follows a young teacher at a financially destitute school for black children somewhere in the American South, as she tries to raise money from wealthy benefactors to keep the school afloat.
From here the story spirals around, and the plotting, especially early on, seems unnecessarily convoluted at times (not helped by some missing scenes here and there), but the various vignettes contained within are well drawn, especially Evelyn Preer’s central performance as Sylvia Landry, the kind but lonely teacher who suffers seemingly endless misfortune as she tries selflessly to help everyone else around her (over the course of the film, plotted against by her cousin, strangled near to death by her fiance, run over, blackmailed by another cousin, assaulted and raped, and her parents are lynched by a baying mob for crimes they didn’t commit).
All of which makes it feel exceedingly weird when the film abruptly ends with a sudden two minute appeal to the greatness of America and the virtues of patriotism.
1. I watched this on mubi. The screenshots are taken from this version on youtube.
2. In addition to writing and directing over 40 films between 1919 and 1940, Oscar Micheaux also wrote seven novels (three before he started making films, and four afterwards).
3. Unfortunately half his films seem to have been lost since.
4. Reading silent film era filmographies and seeing just how little survived is always pretty depressing.
5. The only other surviving film of his first sixteen (made between 1919 and 1926) is The Symbol Of The Unconquered, which I might watch next week.
6. Anyway, back to Within Our Gates, despite the oddity of the ending, and the slightly disjointed opening, I liked this a lot.
7. It had some interesting editing too, with various flashbacks, and scenes intercut with each other in places.
8. Which felt quite modern to me.
Title: Within Our Gates
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Duration: 80 minutes