Within Our Gates (1920)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Early Black Cinema  |   Release Date - Jan 12, 1920 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 79 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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According to most sources, Within Our Gates, the earliest surviving feature film produced and directed by an African-American, was Oscar Micheaux's answer to the abject, at times frighteningly mesmerizing, racism of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). Structurally, however, the film is closer to Intolerance (1916), Griffith's epic of man's inhumanity to man. Like that classic, in which Griffith added truckloads of spectacle to topical gangster-thriller The Mother and the Law, Within Our Gates takes about an hour of rather confusing uplifting melodrama to get to the point, a 20-minute flashback detailing Sylvia Landry's (Evelyn Preer) tragic past: the blind xenophobia leading up to the lynching of her parents (William Starks and Mattie Peters) and Sylvia's near rape by a white brute (Grant Gorman), who turns out to be her own father. Even more disturbing than the graphic depictions of lynching -- there are no less than three in all committed by an entire village of men, women, and children -- is the final scene depicting Micheaux's firm rebuttal to Griffith and playwright Thomas Dixon's warped world view of the Reconstructive black male threatening the purity of Southern white womanhood. It is a powerful scene -- the abuser visibly fondles his victim's breast before recoiling at the sight of her telltale scar -- not only because of Micheaux' daring close-ups but also through the performances of Gorman and Preer. Almost alone among silent era African-American filmmakers, Micheaux did not create a never-never land peopled solely by blacks but allowed his characters to exist in the real, mostly segregated, world of the 1920s. Yes, most of the performances in Within Our Gates are over the top -- in fact, more so than in the average low-budget Hollywood product of 1920 -- but these African-American actors were truly screen pioneers. A few enjoyed some success in mainstream fare (Mattie Peters playing the typical mammy roles in Jack Hoxie Westerns and Miss Preer briefly under contract to Paramount) but all were destined to perfect their craft in the "race" films of Oscar Micheaux, Richard Norman, and others. Filmed at the Capitol City Studios in Chicago, Within Our Gates and Micheaux's two other surviving silents, Symbol of the Unconquered and Body and Soul stand as testaments to a brave troupe of thespians whose stories are still begging to be told.