Within Our Gates is the second film by Oscar Micheaux, who apart from being the first African American filmmaker was also a novelist and short story writer (the intertitles’ syntax is definitely a novelist’s), and it addresses race in a way that no other filmmaker of the time would’ve had the courage or, probably, the insight to execute. So it’s the kind of movie you wanna kneel before, where you can take pride in being able to say that you saw it — which by the same token means it’s the kind of movie you’d be reluctant to criticize for, say, the convoluted love triangle, or the dialogue exchanges that drag on for a little too long, or maybe particularly for the fact that it’s the most bare-bones production on the List so far, that almost none of its sets are larger than a bedroom or a sidewalk, and that on the basis of the filmmaker’s modest means (which is probably the last thing you wanna give somebody a hard time about) it’s easy for your mind to wander. It’s also guilt-inducing to point those things out in light of the fact that Within Our Gates features a nearly all-black cast of actors who each, when given their moment alone with the camera, give performances that rival any other on this List so far. The murder of a black family in the movie’s last act is probably as effectively visceral now as it was in 1920. The movie overall is brutal and well-made and admirably confrontational. But it’s also easy to drift away from.
It’s the first movie on the List that couldn’t qualify as escapism. It isn’t trying to be fun (not sure if that’s the same as saying that it isn’t trying to be entertaining). And I’ve been thinking about that sort of confrontational movie ever since I saw one in April called Green Room, by Jeremy Saulnier, which I both loved and hated on account of its brutality and the fact that, while sitting there in the theater, I was really uncomfortable, and kind of wanting it to end, but was also genuinely riveted by the story, invested in it. And even though I haven’t seen Green Room again in the five months since that initial viewing, I’ve thought about it a lot, with reverence, and also questioned the value of art like this. The confrontational stuff that doesn’t just want to make you uncomfortable or creep you out or make you jump, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that aspires, instead, to actually disturb you. Whether there’s something cathartic or virtuous about subjecting yourself to a really horrific depiction of something that has happened and/or happens today.
Within Our Gates, as best as I can summarize it, is about a woman named Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) who goes north to raise money for a school for African American students. She needs $5,000 and ends up getting ten times that amount from a benefactor whose charity is inadvertently bolstered by the hatespeech a racist friend. This friend of hers, in an effort to discourage the donation, says basically that blacks are simple-minded people, sated by religion alone, and that an education would only burden them. Sylvia returns to the south, and the movie ends with her getting married. Immediately before the nuptials, however, we see a flashback to Sylvia’s youth, when her father was framed for murder and then lynched alongside of her mother. A man tries to rape her but finds, upon tearing her dress open, a scar on her chest that confirms she’s actually his daughter.
There’s a convoluted subplot about what seems like a love triangle in the beginning, but I couldn’t follow it (this might also have to do with the fact that a reel is missing). There’s also a really compelling couple of scenes wherein a black preacher named Old Ned delivers an erudite sermon to his congregation about the spiritual prosperity of the black race over the white. A scene later, however, he’s trying to stay on the good graces of a couple of white men by telling them that African Americans shouldn’t be educated. Later, when he’s alone, Old Ned laments how circumstances have forced him to “[sell] my birthright” in order to get by. He’s tormented by having suggested that blacks and whites are anything but equal; he deems himself a sinner for this, destined for Hell. His character isn’t seen again afterward, unfortunately, but he makes a formidable impression with just these couple scenes.
The movie is powerful, especially in its depiction of the lynch mob’s pursuit and murder of a family, and of the children’s escape, and yeah the story is made convoluted by a love plot that doesn’t offer very much to the overall picture, and the picture quality seems to drive your eye away at times, but it’s definitely an invaluable piece of work.
Think what this movie could have been with proper production value. The filmmaking is so primitive it makes it a chore to get through, but the potential is there and this is an important film. If only it was more watchable.