For the first hour or so of its 75 minutes, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates is far more compelling as a historical artifact than as cinema.(That is, indeed, a backhanded compliment.)
The oldest surviving feature film by a Black director (and likely second ever made, after Michaeux’s The Homesteader, which was lost), Within Our Gates is a staid drama about racial politics for much of its runtime. It tells the story of a black woman, Sylvia (Evelyn Preer), as she tries to raise funds for a poor southern Black school.
But those final 15-20 minutes are something else: energetic, violent, and revolting in a visceral way that the opening is not. An innocent Black man is framed for the murder of his debtor, which sets off a cascade of racial fury. The accused murderer successfully eludes the mob, but the bloodthirsty whites instead lynch the closest Black man — the very person who falsely accused the first. A white man corners Sylvia in a house and attempts to rape her, only for him to realize she is his daughter, perhaps from a previous rape (the backwards-translated intertitle is confusing).
This harrowing climax leaves a brutal, astringent taste in the viewer’s mouth that resonates more than a gentler conclusion would have. It reinforces the dehumanizing, cyclic nature of racial violence and racism. The film is a century old, but many of its political quandaries remain: How do we ensure minorities receive educational and working opportunities equitable to those available to their white community members? How do we overcome the prominent voices who seek to minimize the racial disparity? Is it even possible to unlearn and reverse racism when it is so inherently irrational and fear-based?
It’s hard not to see Within Our Gates as direct rebuke of The Birth of a Nation. Here, as in Birth, we observe the cultural divide between the north and the south as America reckons with its post-Civil War race issues. Both films culminate in shocking violence from mobs, attempted rapes, and unnecessary death. But Micheaux flips Griffith’s twisted, racist, Confederate perspective on its head into a more cynical and honest tale of opression and bigotry.
From a craft and form perspective, the film is a bit lacking, even given the era. Most of the shots are simple and unambitious: Unmoving medium shots containing 1-3 characters. The editing is haphazard, with some shots lasting several seconds too long, and some shots cutting out after jarring brevity, though it’s hard to feel confident we’re seeing the film in Micheaux’s, original vision. But as we have it, this film does not advance the medium’s visual language so much as broaden cinema-writ-large’s diversity of voices.
Narratively, the film is a mixed bag, too. The film opens with a soap opera segment that has little bearing on everything that follows, and some mid-film stretches drag with little narrative momentum. With multiple storylines told in a nonlinear progression (with at least one extended flashback), it’s easy to lose track of some of the specific story threads.
Other moments are downright adventurous, though. I was particularly struck by the murder that a Black man is framed for: We see it once as it really happened, and once as it is falsely recounted later in a proto-Rashomon segment.
The film is ultimately a success due to the intensity and honesty of its voice. In the century since, this film’s fears and viewpoints have been validated again and again (though it is perhaps too harsh to its Black characters that pander to white characters). Its violent ending is a savage gut punch. The sheer fact that a film was written, directed, produced, and edited by a single Black man in an industry dominated to this day by white people is remarkable. Within Our Gates is certainly worth visiting by anyone interested in film history or race as depicted in cinema, though general audiences might find it to be a bit formally dull or narratively scattershot.
(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 8. Up next is yet another DW Griffith Drama, Way Down East, from 1920.)