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From the Masters at the Movies column of the September 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Masters at the Movies, Take 14: Fitzhugh Brundage on Within Our Gates

Robert Brent Toplin, September 2010

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue W. Fitzhugh Brundage examines Within Our Gates, a silent movie created by Oscar Micheaux, who was the first African American to produce a feature length silent film and the first African American to craft a feature-length sound film. Micheaux’s work with film remained rather obscure until movie enthusiasts rediscovered his oeuvre in recent decades. In 1986 the Director’s Guild awarded Micheaux (posthumously) the Golden Jubilee Special Award and a year later the film industry placed his star in the “Walk of Fame” on Hollywood Boulevard. Today his cinema receives considerable attention in film and history classrooms.

Micheaux, a self-made artist, delivered poignant commentaries on the black experience in America by writing books and then directing and producing more than thirty movies. His stories dealt with controversial social issues, including lynching, racial injustice, intermarriage, and passing for white. Micheaux’s films challenged the stereotypical images commonly portrayed in early American cinema. Rather than show African Americans as Uncle Toms, servile mammies, and dangerous bucks, Micheaux showed diverse and complex individuals populated black communities. Above all, his characterizations suggested that African Americans deserved respect, not derision. Within Our Gates, is generally considered one of Micheaux’s most important contributions to the idea of “racial uplift.” His production aimed to counter unflattering images of African Americans featured in D.W. Griffith’s popular film of 1915, Birth of a Nation.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His books include A Socialist Utopia in the New South: The Ruskin Colonies in Tennessee and Georgia, 1894–1901; Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930; The Southern Past: A Clash of Racial Memory; and edited works: Where Memories Grow: History, Memory and Southern Identity and Under Sentence of Death: Essays on Lynching in the South. Currently Brundage is at work on two projects: a collection on African Americans and the creation of American mass culture, 1890–1930 and a book about 1919 in the United States.

Robert Brent Toplin (University of North Carolina at Wilmington), a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board, edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he created.