“At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro”
So begins Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates. Created hot on the heels of both D. W. Griffith’s Klu Klux Klan appraisal in The Birth of a Nation and the devastating Chicago Race Riots of 1919, Micheaux tackles subject matter close to heart and home. The story follows Sylvia Landry, an educated black woman, as she tries to gain funding of five thousand dollars to save her school. However, prejudice and her past come back to haunt her.
Some films shape the codes and conventions of cinema, some break them and some, like this piece, are historically important for immense bravery and honesty. In a time of racial prejudice, forty years before the Civil Rights Movement and the real societal changes, Oscar Micheaux, cinema’s first black director, crafts a film of tolerance and equality with minute budget and resources.
The story does not flow fluidly, it has staggered and confused moments which slow the pace. However, Within Our Gates is an engaging film, depicting graphic and hateful moments of rape and lynching common to some in the backwards South, and the tenderness of others in the North, as with the beneficiary who donates to save the school. Here is Micheaux’s first virtue – Balance. White people are not demonised in this piece, the villains of the South have their counterpart saviours in the North, but even here prejudice is varied and complex. Certain white characters collide over racial views and so a commentary is opened concerning how black people are regarded and how ridiculous some of these outlooks are.
The black characters, thankfully played by a very able cast of black actors, are also a realistic variety of good and bad. Some are greedy and spiteful as with murderer and thief Larry Prichard, whilst Sylvia is a true and kind heroine. These characters are not caricatures, they are people. Complex and fractured, either through love or loss. Perhaps most interesting and telling is the black reverend Wilson Jacobs, assigned to keep black people in their place by preaching how clean the souls are of the hardworking field hands who will be rewarded in heaven. When confronted by white people, the reverend laughs at how stupid his mass is, but in private, he reveals himself to be self loathing for what he has done. This is a fascinating character created by Micheaux, a tragic character caught between his own morality and the widespread prejudice of the time.
The ending of a idyllic marriage is odd and out of place, but in such a ruthless worldview, it is understandable for such a nightmare to be rewarded with a dreamy escapism and ultimately, hope.
A mob awaits to hang the senior Landry for a murder he did not commit. Within a short time, the events have been misconstrued, and the unpopular victim has been painted a saint. The snickering, misinformed snitch of the piece is the victim’s butler – Efram. The mob quickly grow bored of waiting and decide to lynch Efram whilst they wait. It is a startling moment to see such flippancy towards the life of black man. Although an unpopular character, Micheaux wastes no chance to show how unstable and terrifying the life of an African American can be.