Masters at the Movies

Why I'll Watch Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates until I Wear It Out

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, September 2010

I have a weakness for silent movies. I’ll watch with pleasure even the most cliché-ridden among them, partly for the mesmerizing visual vocabulary of the films, partly to see early moviemakers working out the narrative grammar of cinema, and partly for the glimpses of random landscapes and material culture—fashions, furnishings, technology—captured in silent movies.

Alas, few of my students share my enthusiasm. Too often the films’ stylized acting and overwrought plots elicit laughter or induce napping. Like scratchy 78 recordings, silent films require more concentration and patience than many students possess.

Yet one silent movie that consistently stirs my students’ imaginations is Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920). Crammed into 80 minutes is a complex plot of love, betrayal, murder, rape, lynching, gambling, miscegenation, racial uplift, white bigotry, and black migration from the rural South to the urban North. Translated onto film are the hardships of blacks in the Jim Crow era United States, the promises and disappointments of black freedom, and the emergence of the “New Negro.” The film is one of the earliest examples, and certainly the most ambitious extant example, of black appropriation of the emerging technology to contest representations of African Americans in mass culture.

Like an overstuffed used bookstore, Within Our Gates invites close and repeated inspection. Although I have watched the film countless times, with each viewing I discover something previously overlooked. Micheaux was a neophyte, self-taught filmmaker when he directed the film, and the intricacies of the movie’s plot are sometimes difficult to follow. Yet, if the plot is understood as a triptych of related but distinct acts, the film’s scope and ambitions become clear, indeed remarkable.

The film opens with the protagonist, Sylvia Landry, a young black woman, visiting her cousin Alma in the North while she awaits her fiancé’s return from military service. Harboring designs on her cousin’s betrothed, Alma contrives to fix Sylvia up with her brother-in-law, a dissipated card shark. Alma succeeds in catching Sylvia in a compromising situation just as her fiancé returns, prompting him to break off the engagement. Despondent, Sylvia returns south and dedicates herself to teaching at a school for the children of black sharecroppers. Despite the tireless efforts Sylvia and her mentor, Rev. Wilson Jacobs, the school is overcrowded and severely underfunded by local white authorities. Faced with the school’s collapse, Sylvia returns to the North to raise funds.

To this point, the film appears to be a romantic melodrama yoked to a story of thwarted racial uplift in the rural South. Micheaux was a self-made man who embraced and proselytized the era’s “up by the boot straps” dogma. The son of former slaves, he held odd jobs before homesteading in South Dakota. There, although largely self-educated, he began to write and publish stories and novels, which he sold door to door. Convinced that his semi-autobiographical novel The Homesteader was worthy of a film, he secured sufficient funds to form a movie production company and, in 1919, released his first film. A year later, when he made Within Our Gates, he continued to promote black uplift while displaying anxiety about corrupting urban influences on rural blacks. Like the jeremiads delivered by contemporary black ministers, Micheaux’s film dwelled on the obligation to strive for respectability. As a pioneer black filmmaker working in a medium abounding with invidious racial stereotypes, Micheaux acutely sensed the importance of depicting blacks comporting themselves with decorum and modesty. Even so, he did not shy away from acknowledging those blacks whose behavior, he believed, contributed to stereotypes. In contrast to Sylvia and Rev. Jacobs, who are paragons of respectability, Alma and her brother-in-law personify forms of selfishness and dissolution that impede the race’s potential.

The tone and focus of Within Our Gates shift markedly when Sylvia journeys north to fundraise. Micheaux resorts to improbable plot contrivances to shift our attention to the poisonous effects of white racism. Already frustrated by her failure to raise money, Sylvia is waylaid by a black thug who snatches her purse. Fortunately, Dr. V. Vivian, a dashing young black man “passionately engaged in social questions,” runs down her assailant. A budding romance between Dr. Vivian and Sylvia is abruptly halted when she is struck by an automobile belonging, coincidentally, to a wealthy white philanthropist. After learning of Sylvia’s mission, the philanthropist considers donating money to Sylvia’s school. A southern friend to whom she turns for advice is appalled that misguided altruism may lead the philanthropist to waste her wealth on blacks, who, the friend insists, cannot and should not be educated. The philanthropist eventually rejects this advice and makes a huge donation to Sylvia’s school. Sylvia quickly recovers from her injuries and hastens south with the donation.

Despite the rickety plot turns in this portion of the film, Micheaux offers a searing portrait of the ideology of white supremacy. Overturning prevailing wisdom, portrayed notably in D. W. Griffith’s film epic Birth of a Nation (1915), Within Our Gates underscores that racism is fueled by ignorance and hinders national unity. Whereas Griffith’s film suggests that the revelation of blacks’ true capacities and natures would restore racial unity and fraternity among northern and southern whites, Micheaux counters that if northern whites could see through the fog of white southern bigotry they would recognize that blacks were citizens worthy of both rights and respect.

Micheaux is not naïve about the likelihood of whites achieving such clarity. One of the movie’s most poignant vignettes depicts the predicament of “Old Ned,” a black preacher who must humiliate himself and attest that “Yes’m. White folks is mighty fine,” in order to collect small donations for his church from bigoted whites. After doing so, the preacher stares into the camera and confesses, “Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage. Negroes and Whites—all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, hell is my destiny.” Unlike the black characters in Birth of a Nation, who are either bestial or loyal and subservient, Old Ned wears a mask of deference while harboring resentment and self-loathing, illustrating the psychic pain endured by blacks who comported themselves in accordance with the dictates of white supremacy.

In the final act of the film Micheaux displays his maturing talents as both a storyteller and social critic, exploring his larger concerns—violence and the sexual politics of white supremacy—with exceptional insight. After Sylvia’s return to the South, Dr. Vivian continues to pine for her. He tracks down Alma, who recounts her cousin’s tragic history. In an extended flashback, Dr. Vivian learns that Sylvia was raised by the Landrys, a black family who, in spite of poverty and white opposition, managed to provide Sylvia with a modicum of education. Subsequently, Mr. Landry became embroiled in a dispute with his cruel landlord, Mr. Gridlestone, and was wrongfully accused of his murder. Gridlestone had actually been murdered by an embittered white farmer, but Efram, a fawning black servant of Gridlestone’s, accused Landry to gain the favor of the white mob intent on avenging the planter’s murder. In the film’s climax, Micheaux dramatically juxtaposes the lynching of Mr. Landry and his wife with the simultaneous attempted rape of Sylvia by Gridlestone’s brother. Between scenes of the hanging and burning of the Landrys, Sylvia engages in a frantic struggle with her would-be rapist. During the fight, Gridlestone’s brother notices a distinctive scar on Sylvia’s breast and realizes that he is attempting to violate his own daughter, whom he had fathered with a local black woman. Shocked by his discovery, he allows Sylvia to escape.

In this remarkable scene Micheaux translated the black critique of lynching to film. At a time of mounting black mobilization against lynching, Micheaux pressed his viewers to empathize with the victims of white violence. In Micheaux’s hands lynching and rape were evidence of white, not black, barbarism. In contrast to Gus, the stereotypical black rapist in Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s rapist is a privileged and apparently “respectable” white. And rather than a lamentable but justified act of self-defense, lynching, in Micheaux’s film, is irrational, capricious, and indefensible savagery against innocent and estimable citizens like the Landrys. Although Ida Wells-Barnett and others had leveled similar attacks against lynching, no one had previously shown Micheaux’s talent at translating the denunciation of crime into art. Even present day viewers jaded by the violence commonplace in contemporary films find Micheaux’s rendering of lynching haunting and galvanizing.

The reception of the film and its subsequent history add to its fascination. Given its explosive subject matters and the timing of its release—only months after the deadly race riots of 1919—it was inevitable that Micheaux’s film would run afoul of censors. In Chicago, for example, the Board of Censors stalled for two months before finally approving the film. Elsewhere officials demanded that controversial scenes be cut, prompting Micheaux to screen different versions of the film as local circumstances demanded. Perhaps because of the controversy the film aroused, after its release Within Our Gates was lost for decades. Then in the 1970s a single print, entitled La Negra, was discovered in Spain. Using that print, the Library of Congress restored the film during the early 1990s. Yet the restoration is at best an approximation of Micheaux’s original production. A brief sequence in the middle of the film is lost and only four of the original English intertitles have survived. (In the restored movie Spanish intertitles were re-translated back into English and an intertitle frame takes the place of a missing sequence.) The virtual erasure of Within Our Gates for almost half a century and the elevation of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to the status of cinematic masterpiece are telling illustrations of the politics of race and power in twentieth century American popular culture.

After each viewing of Within Our Gates, I am struck by Micheaux’s audacity and ambition. He sought to appropriate a still primitive medium to depict the complexities of the black experience in America while making a film that would enthrall viewers as interested in spectacle and entertainment as in a message of racial uplift. Like his contemporaries Scott Joplin, Bert Williams, and others, Micheaux was exploring how black social justice could be insinuated into the cultural marketplace. Only now is it possible to appreciate fully how successfully Micheaux achieved these goals in Within Our Gates.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent publication is The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Belknap Press/Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).