No matter the decade, some films prove difficult for me to review for a range of reasons. Most commonly, I lack the context or cultural knowledge to feel like I can add to the discussion. That’s perhaps never been more evident than reflecting on Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 Within Our Gates.
Often considered a response to DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – although Micheaux has denied this – Within Our Gates deals directly with the racism suffered by African Americans in the United States of the ‘20s. Pulling no punches, it highlights the way racism not only hurts its victims but how it can harm those who go along with it out of self-preservation.
The film follows the story of Sylvia Landry, an African American who visits her cousin in the North while she waits for her fiancé Conrad to return. Jealous, Alma manages to create a misunderstanding with another man, which causes Conrad to attempt to strangle Sylvia.
Moving back south, Sylvia meets a Reverend who works at a school for black children that’s facing closure if it can’t raise $5,000 fast. Not long after, Sylvia is hit by a wealthy white woman who ends up donating $50,000 to the cause. During her recovery, Sylvia meets and falls in love with Dr Vivian.
Before the two can take things further, a figure from Sylvia’s past brings the threat of scandal and blackmail. This leads to Dr Vivian discovering her tragic past, including the lynching of her parents when her father was falsely accused of murdering their landlord.
The film wears its themes proudly on its sleeve throughout, crossing between both black and white characters, as well as African Americans from the North and South. It often uses lighter-skinned or mixed-race characters to as heroes and darker-skinned characters as villains, usually through association with racist white characters.
One such character, Old Ned, reflects on his life as a preacher who humiliates himself in deference to whites who outwardly despise his race. Closing a door behind him, the smile drains from his face into a despairing sigh as he comments:
“Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage…hell is my destiny.”
Similarly, during the flashback that ends the film, a black servant to the tyrannical landlord is key in whipping up the frenzy to punish Sylvia’s father for a murder he didn’t commit. Frustrated in their pursuit, the white mob turn on the servant and lynch him to quell their bloodlust in the meantime. As he realises what’s about to happen, the servant flashes forward to his body hanging limp from a scaffold.
It’s a stunning image and the clearest single shot of the true horrors of the times in the film. Though never a comfortable watch, the life of Sylvia is an engaging tale of love and loss, struggles and successes, punctuated by stark reminders of reality for these characters.
Within Our Gates is an essential film in the development of cinema, both as an example of African American filmmaking and the society in which black Americans had to survive in the 1920s. It masterfully balances its heavy themes with a genuinely interesting and well-paced slice-of-life story. For anyone interested in where movies came from, there are few better places to begin.