Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movie of the Week: Within Our Gates (Review)

Within Our Gates (1920)

"Southern negro Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) visits her cousin Alma (Flo Clements) in the north and is anxiously awaiting her fiancé, Conrad (James D. Ruffin). But Alma has designs on Conrad and tricks Sylvia into a compromising situation when he arrives, and he abandons her. Disheartened, she returns to her hometown, Piney Woods, to help a reverend running a school for young negroes. Sylvia learns that Reverend Jacobs (S.T. Jacks) hasn't the heart to turn away poor students, and unless he can raise $5,000 to supplement the $1.49 per child per year that the state supplies, the school will be closed. She goes up north again to try to raise the money and has little success, but meets kindly negro, Dr. V. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who helps her regain her stolen purse. When she saves a child from being hit by an auto, she herself is slightly injured. But the owner of the car is philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who is sympathetic to her quest and promises to donate the $5,000 to the school." [IMDb] 
Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates is often referenced as "a response to The Birth of a Nation"--although it certainly is, I believe that it presented so much more to post-WWI moviegoers.

Did you know that Within Our Gates was initially rejected by the Board of Censors in Chicago when Micheaux submitted it in December of 1919?

An article in the Chicago Defender of 17 January 1920 asserted, "This is the picture that required two solid months to get by the Censor Boards."

A week later the Defender reported, "Those who reasoned with the spectacle of last July in Chicago ever before them, declared the showing pre-eminently dangerous; while those who reasoned with the knowledge of existing conditions, the injustices of the times, the lynchings and handicaps of ignorance, determined that the time is ripe to bring the lesson to the front." [Wikipedia]

Chicago was slowly recovering from race riots that had broke out in July that same year (riots took place in other US cities as well), and critics feared that Within Our Gates (particularly a lynching scene and an attempted rape scene) would spark more violence. Despite the controversy and barriers, Within Our Gates was theatrically released on January 12, 1920  and drew large crowds in Chicago theaters. However, the film had been cut into many different versions for different screenings, and unfortunately, the surviving copy that is available to us is a copy that had been cut considerably.


Response to 'Birth'

Within Our Gates is probably the greatest response to anything I've ever seen (or heard) before. Unlike The Birth of the Nation, Micheaux's depiction of post-Civil War life in the South was accurate and aired out White Southerners' actual dirty laundry. As I stated in my review, writers of The Birth of a Nation (and the book, on which it was based, of course) took psychological projection to a whole new level. Newly freed Black Americans (particularly the men) were portrayed as undisciplined and unruly fools who had gained ALLLL of this political power during the Reconstruction Era and somehow, had managed to lust after (and even legally marry) white women without eventually having a noose around their neck.

Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux told the real story of the post-Civil War South through depictions of a lynching, the attempted rape of a black woman (*spoiler alert below*) , a trouble-making White Southerner (who "ironically" resembles Lillian Gish), and a (lying) whistle-blowing Uncle Tom (who is eventually turned on by his beloved whites).

Other Social Issues

As stated early in this post, Within Our Gates could definitely be considered as Oscar Micheaux's response to The Birth of a Nation, but it also brings so much more to the forefront. Even if Birth wasn't in the picture, it still showcases the life of a Black Southerner to a wider audience. I've also noticed that the lead characters in a lot of Micheaux's films were women--and these characters were always true leaders--Sylvia Landry, Eve Mason in The Symbol of the Unconquered, Claudia in Murder in Harlem. Although women got the right to vote the same year that this movie was released, when it comes to feminist issues and the writing of female characters, I believe that this movie was way ahead of its time. It's still quite rare that we see depictions of black women being leaders among their people. As noted in other sources, Within Our Gates also showcases the lives of Black Americans after the "Great Migration". 


I hate to say this, but the best acting in Micheaux films may have came out of his earlier released ones (the ones I've seen anyway). Every actor in this movie did exceptional jobs, especially the star, Evelyn Preer. Ms. Preer was a theatrically-trained actress, by the way (as was a lot of "race movie" performers)--she was one of Anita Bush's Lafayette Players.

Evelyn Preer in an ad for Micheaux's The Homesteader (1919)

Of all the Micheaux movies I've seen (four, including this one), this one is probably the best written, in my opinion. The characters were fleshed out pretty well--most were multi-dimensional people.


Oscar Micheaux's movies have been critiqued for not having any artistic flair and I have to agree with that. I'd also have to agree with critics who'd say that Micheaux's plots would become pretty redundant. However, I think one has to keep in mind that Oscar Micheaux (along with other black filmmakers of the time, like Spencer Williams, Jr.) wasn't exactly a millionaire and perhaps he was more focused on getting his message across than he was on his movies' "mise-en-scène". When it comes to the redundancy of his stories, perhaps it was easier to stick to a formula for money purposes? Maybe? 

Newspaper ad

But, let's get back to Within Our Gates. There is only one instance in which special editing techniques are used in this film--and that would be the lynching/attempted rape scene (the most talked about of all Micheaux movies). These two poignant moments in the film take place at the same time and are cut and pieced together beautifully, if one could call such a scene "beautiful". Not only do we cut directly to the mob and the victims, but there are cuts to their environment, for example--to the shaking of a wooden arch that is to hold their (the lynch victims) weight. The scene is very intense.


If you are interested in History, US History, Black-American History, Film History, the history of Black Cinema, or you just like good movies--especially dramas--I highly recommend Within Our Gates to you. It is unfortunate that this film is practically forgotten among the masses, and if you ask me, if teachers and professors can show The Birth of a Nation for "historical significance", they should show Within Our Gates as well. 

Mentioned "Spoiler Alert"

In the attempted raped scene, the rapist notices a scar on the black woman he is about to rape and realizes it is his daughter, thus connecting the false accusations thrust upon black people (especially men) and the reality of what was really going on. This man had struck out from the lynch mob that falsely accused a black man of murdering a white woman so that he could rape a black woman--his child--the product of HIS assault. Hypocrisy! 



Unless noted otherwise, all of the images above were obtained from Wikipedia. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these images wishes to have them removed, please contact me, and I will do so immediately.




Check out today's edition of Guess What's Been in My House for Awhile and I Didn't Know It Until Recently!:

Click here to read about the United States Postal Services' Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp.

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