Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Within Our Gates, USA 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2018

Within Our Gates is a riposte to the racism and white supremacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is likely that Oscar Micheaux deliberately derived the title from a 1919 Griffith film, A Romance of Happy Valley, which contains the epigraph:

‘Harm not the stranger

Within your gates

Lest you yourself be hurt’.

This point is made in an article by J. Ronald Green in ‘Griffithiana 60/61’, a publication that accompanied the Giornate Festival of 1997, which saw the screenings of both the Griffith classic and the less well-known Micheaux film. Seeing the two films in succession demonstrated Micheaux’s success in confronting the pernicious arguments of the earlier film.

An important aspect of the rediscovery of Micheaux was a sense of the context for his film. Within Our Gates was produced for the US ‘race’ film market, and was therefore denied the resources and production values lavished on the Hollywood product, including Griffith’s epics. The dominance of these values, even today, makes Micheaux’s films appear inferior alongside those of Griffith. It is worth noting that at the 1997 Giornate, The Birth of a Nation received a full orchestral accompaniment, while Micheaux had to make do with a solo piano. But to appreciate Micheaux’s work it needs to be approached in the way one responds to an independent film. The emphasis is not on grandiose spectacle but intelligent and meaningful narrative.

The surviving print is incomplete and the film was frequently cut, sometimes by Micheaux himself, because the violence depicted in the lynching scenes sparked serious controversy. In Chicago the censors enforced cuts of 1200 feet, i.e. over an entire reel of the film. Moreover the source for the surviving print is a Spanish language version, so that the titles, translated into Spanish, have now been retranslated back to English. This apparently affects both the plotting and also the use of colloquial speech. One character’s name, Girdlestone, has changed to Gridlestone. It is also possible that some shots are in the wrong position, either through poor copying or carelessness in post production. This makes the plot somewhat difficult to follow at first viewing.

(Note: the contemporary terms for Afro-Americans citizens was Negro, or coloured, with more pejorative variations quite common. Negro was supposed to commence with a capital N, not to do so was considered demeaning by black people.)

The protagonist of the film is Sylvia Landry, a southerner. At the film’s opening Sylvia is in the north visiting her cousin, Alma. Alma, with the help of her other cousin, Larry, engineers the break-up of Sylvia’s engagement. Larry himself is involved in gambling and criminal activities. Sylvia now goes to work in a school for Negroes in the south, in the hamlet of Piney Wood. The school is clearly offering a path to betterment for poor Negro children, but it is almost bankrupt. Sylvia goes north again, to Boston, to raise money from wealthy benefactors. In Boston she meets a professional, modern minded Negro, Dr Vivian. Her rescue of a child from the path of an automobile brings her to the attention of wealthy Bostonian. Though a southern acquaintance schemes to prevent her funding a Negro school, the wealthy white woman provides the much-needed funds for Piney Wood and Sylvia returns to the school. There she turns down a proposal from its head teacher. Now Larry reappears and tries to blackmail Sylvia. To avoid more trouble Sylvia again travels to the north.

Larry is shot in a robbery. Dr. Vivian searching for Sylvia treats the dying Larry and then meets Alma. She tells him Sylvia’s story in a long flashback. We find Sylvia, not knowing her parentage, was raised by a black share-cropping family. The film illustrates the exploitation of black share-croppers. It also shows them victims of false accusations which lead to a lynching. This is intercut with an attempted rape. This is a powerful sequence of cross-cutting which provides the dramatic and critical heart of the film.

Some of the factors in engaging with the film are the conventions of the ‘race’ cinema. Whilst they follow the dominant Hollywood model in the main, the cultural opposition implicit in the films has an effect. Sylvia is introduced with a title card identifying ‘the renowned Negro Artist Evelyn Preer’. The predominantly segregated black audiences would have enjoyed a familiarity with her career and performances, probably completely unknown to equivalent white audiences.

A following title card then informs us that Sylvia is ‘typical of the intelligent Negro of our time’. Micheaux immediately offers a contrasting characterisation to those of Griffith and his Hollywood contemporaries. Micheaux also taps into the debates within the Afro-American communities of the time about their social values. Like many other successful Negroes (relatively speaking) Micheaux embraced the bourgeois values of the dominant society. His male protagonists tend to be self-made men. In several films they are either a homesteader or prospector, seemingly utilising Micheaux’s own earlier experiences. His arguments are for equality within the system. Dr Vivian clearly embraces the emerging imperial ideology of the USA. He proudly tells Sylvia of the Negroes’ role in the US adventures in Cuba and Mexico.

But Micheaux is not just a dissident black voice. A remarkable aspect of the film is the centrality and action of the heroine. In Griffith’s films women are idealised by men, saved by men and then married and protected by men. Sylvia travels, fundraises and fends off attacks on her own. She is an independent woman. Dr Vivian, a student of social affairs, persuades Sylvia to his point of view, but he does this through study and debate. Sylvia may be the victim of patriarchal violence, but she clearly confronts it.

It will be seen from the geographic plotting of the film that Micheaux also tackles the question of the South. Sylvia’s travels between North and South expose the particularly vicious nature of white supremacy in the southern states. However, Micheaux is also clear about the limits of northern liberalism. A wry intertitle reads:

‘At the opening of our drama, we find our characters 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.’

The performances and Micheaux’s mise en scène are predominantly within the conventions of the mainstream. The film offers an equivalent melodrama to Griffith. His contemporary Negro society has a fairly clear split between reputable and disreputable. Larry and his criminal associates are defined in anti-social terms, and receive the appropriate melodramatic punishment. Another aspect of Negro society is the religious trend. The Bostonian matriarch who opposes funding a black school proposes instead that money be given to a local minister and preacher. He preaches that Negroes should stay in their place and is clearly antithetical to the modern aspiring Negroes like Dr Vivian. He and his congregation are also characterised in the melodramatic performance similar to the Negroes in Griffith’s epic.

The plotting relies on melodramatic coincidences familiar from earlier film melodrama. Dr Vivian meets Sylvia when he sees her robbed in the street. And Dr Vivian rediscovers Sylvia through treating the fatally wounded Larry. At the climax of the film Sylvia learns about her parentage – “mixed race”. These characters are really melodramatic types rather than psychologically rounded individuals.

Visually the films share the style of earlier film melodrama. The staging is straightforward, with characters placed within simple changing settings. The standard shot is the mid-shot, with the action played straight to camera. The lighting is mainly naturalistic, but clearly limited. Because of this, many scenes have a low-key look. Micheaux’s choice of shots utilises a simple range and selection. He does use close-ups rather than the iris technique found in Griffith (iris shots tend to introduce or close sequences). He also follows the newly developed system of continuity, using shot, reverse shot and on- and off-screen actions matching.

His editing is the most distinctive use of technique. He parallels Griffith in his intercutting between characters and actions, both in order to generate drama and also to make comment. The manhunt and lynching is an incredibly powerful presentation. And the cross-cutting with an attempted rape in a different setting increases the critical power. This arrangement of cuts also presents the reality of lynching and murders for southern Negroes, and the rape and incest that accompanied this. Griffith’s inversion of the exploitation of black people after the Civil War is here re inverted by Micheaux, and he uses Griffith’s most notable technique to present his rebuttal.

Within Our Gates had a far more chequered career than The Birth of a Nation. Whereas the Griffith epic survives relatively unscathed, Micheaux’s riposte is heavily mutilated. This would seem to be a direct outcome of the dominance of Hollywood, and the oppressed cinema of the ‘race cinema’. Even so, it suggests a more complex audience experience in this period than might seem from the iconic status in which The Birth of a Nation is held.

Written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Book and Film Company

Existing print 5935 feet (six reels, originally seven or eight reels). Running time of 100 minutes at 16 fps.

Cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Charles D. Lucas (Dr Vivian), Jack Chenault (Larry Pritchard), Flo Clements (Alma Pritchard).

Note, this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’, Auteur 2014.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Within Our Gates, USA 1920”

  1. […] if we could have a follow-up of a screening of one of Oscar Micheaux’s powerful film dramas: Within Our Gates (1920) is a classic that addresses both rape and lynching of black […]

  2. Reblogged this on Kenny Wilson's Blog.

  3. […] on Oscar Micheaux and the ‘race cinema’, including Within Our Gates, a film utilised in this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: