Besides being historically significant, credited as the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American, Oscar Micheaux, and an early entry in the "race film" genre, "Within Our Gates" is interesting in its narrative construction and representation and compellingly and competently so, especially for an independent, low-budget production from 1919-1920. Discourse on race in silent cinema (and, really, past that via its derivatives, such as "Gone with the Wind" (1939)), tends to be dominated by what is likely the most influential and controversial movie ever made, "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). Central to that D.W. Griffith epic was its racist depiction of blacks and perversion of American history in romanticizing slavery and a Reconstruction era as rescued by the KKK. "Within Our Gates" may and has been viewed as a contemporary rebuttal to Griffith's picture in this way, but Micheaux also ingeniously rewrote some of the same sort of narrative devices employed by Griffith--balancing melodrama with seemingly-more-realistic scenes of brutality, emotional appeals with intellectual ones, and crisscrossing between characters, subplots and timelines in an arrangement that, ultimately, follows more in the tradition of Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916) in its non-linear plotting--for which Micheaux employed to reverse racial stereotypes and depict a history and present more strikingly true than any authored by Griffith, or those the likes of Thomas Dixon or President Woodrow Wilson who inspired him. Indeed, "Within Our Gates" recalls the then-recent Chicago race riot of 1919, as well as the history of lynchings in the United States.
In typical melodramatic fashion, "Within Our Gates" begins with a love triangle (or circle, really), where the main character, Sylvia, is engaged to one guy, whom her cousin Alma conspires to have for herself, while Sylvia is also pursued by Larry, a criminal and stepbrother of Alma. Additionally, Sylvia is proposed to by a founder of a school for African Americans located in the South--an educator seemingly partly inspired by Booker T. Washington--and a doctor who is "passionately engaged in social questions," and she's nearly raped by a white man.
The sexual-assault scene is the inverse of the climax of "The Birth of a Nation" where Lillian Gish's white virgin is attacked by a rapacious mulatto and political ally of her father, which leads the father to change his ways in the face of a quasi-incestuous attack perpetrated against his daughter. "Within Our Gates" features a more likely scenario given historical racial power dynamics. Sylvia is also of mixed race, which itself recalls the history of white masters raping black slaves and the continuation of violence against African Americans into the Jim Crow era. Sylvia is about to be raped by the brother of a man whom her adoptive father is falsely accused of having killed until the would-be-rapist sees a scar on Sylvia that's proof of her being his biological daughter. As in "The Birth of a Nation," the father, thus, realizes the errors of his ways. Also as in Griffith's film, the sexual-assault scene takes place within a larger-scale act of violence. The Klan's battle with the black mob in "The Birth of a Nation" and the white mob's lynching of Sylvia's innocent adoptive parents in "Within Our Gates," in addition to the lynching of yet another African American and the attempted one of a child.
These most shocking scenes in Micheaux's picture, however, are tempered by being framed as a flashback, as told by one character to another, neither of whom were involved in the events. Indeed, Micheaux plays around quite a bit with the perspective of the plot. Early on, Larry oversees a card game that ends in a shootout (by the way, this has to be some of the most ludicrous card cheating ever conceived, as one player cheats by dealing the cards over a mirror!), but this scene is additionally framed from Sylvia's perspective as a nightmare. We see another scene where Sylvia is interacting with the man we don't yet know to be her father and for whom her fiancé is led to believe she is having an affair. And, in the climactic flashback sequence, there are two scenes of the murder of Gridlestone--a flashback-within-a-flashback--one where we see how it really happened, but also as only partially observed by Efram, and another where we see a newspaper's fantasy of it to lend justification to the extrajudicial lynchings.
This is ambitious storytelling, especially for 1920 cinema. I don't even fault Micheaux for the tacked-on happy ending, as it's so absurdly out of place in its jingoism that it, too, reminds me of the sort of national or universal messages Griffith would likewise attach to the ends of his films, and Micheaux has nothing on Griffith in the overuse of wordy title cards full of purple prose. The clutter of characters and subplots, too, seems characteristic of epic melodrama. I don't mind, either, that the film (in its current state, at least) doesn't wrap up everything neatly and leaves some questions unanswered. Besides, much of the reason for that, as well as the sometimes choppy editing, is likely due to lost footage. The presentation of the film on the "Pioneers of African-American Cinema" set only mentions one missing scene and the loss of most of the original title cards, but others have indicated that more is lost. (I also wonder whether the freeze frame at the end was original or added later.) Alma's transformation, for instance, is never really accounted for, nor is how she knows more about Sylvia's history than does Sylvia. Sylvia's relationship with Larry seems to be cut short in the end, as do the ultimate fates of Larry and the detective chasing him. What was Sylvia doing with her father in their first brief shot together? For that matter, what's Sylvia's childhood history, including the story behind the scar and the events leading to her adoption? What's with the shot of the woman in the forest?
Not all the subplots seem to fit with the main one, either, but Micheaux goes to considerable lengths to cast an array of characters of varying complicated motives, to problematize racial issues and not merely represent entire races, as Griffith tended to, as good or bad, intelligent or not, slavish "faithful souls" or rapacious mulattos. One philanthropic white woman donates a large sum to the black school, while another white woman spews racist animus. Efram and the self-hating preacher Ned are a twist on the patronizing "faithful souls" in Griffith's film. African Americans are shown to be educators, doctors and detectives, but there's also the criminal Larry. Sylvia's father and Alma are alternately charitable and vicious. Additionally, the acting here tends to continue in the tradition of Griffith's troupe of a more-restrained screen performance (the final shot of Ned is a standout), although as in his films, there are occasional outbursts here that are overblown--the actor portraying Sylvia's fiancé, in particular, is a ham at playing jealous. Regardless, "Within Our Gates" is a fascinating piece of history, of black representation on screen, of the beginnings of African Americans being in control behind the camera, of innovative storytelling and style, and as a counterargument to the most notorious mainstream film within its time.
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