Within Our Gates (1920)

This early 20th century film is the earliest recovered (i.e. surviving) film written, directed, and produced by an African American, Oscar Micheaux. The story follows Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) who finds her calling assisting an under funded school for black children after being abandoned by her fiancé. The story details the prejudice, insufficient resources, and inequality experienced in the early twentieth century.

The most notable feature of this film is the fact that it is the first film with a director of African American descent. On top of that, Oscar Micheaux also wrote, produced, and distributed the film. An incredible feat, especially considering the time (as illustrated throughout his film).

The contemporaneous film highlights the struggles and hardships of everyday life. Voter suppression, unequal rights, rape, lynching, underfunded schools, general prejudice towards anyone of color, are all the focal point of the film. It is incredible and disheartening how relevant these issues are today, 100 years after this film.

After watching several early twentieth century films recently, it is refreshing to see an early film with an almost all black cast. So many of these early films feature no black actors in roles of substance, and if there is such a character it is played by someone in black face (i.e. Birth of a Nation). It is refreshing to see black actors take the stage.

I had never heard of the genre “race film” until reading into Within Our Gates. These are films that were made for and by African Americans, and other minority groups, during the first half of the twentieth century;Within Our Gates being an early forerunner of the genre.

In 1919, black folks weren’t allowed to be in movies (on top of the myriad things they weren’t allowed to do). Given that, it is exceptional that a black man was able to make a film starring only people of color.

Beyond the systemic racism that kept minorities from starring in films produced by white people, the business-minded argument must have been that audiences would not pay to see films made by and starring minoritygroups. Yet, at the time there was an entire genre of films that were successes.

Within Our Gates is a good counter to Birth of a Nation. Instead of vilifying the black community it shows how the white community repeatedly accuses, blames, neglects, and suppresses the black community. It even paints the white community as blinded by their ignorance. Many characters show how they are required to, and rewarded by, “playing the part” while around white people. The film comes across as a warning to White people. A warning that the tides are changing.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Directed by: Oscar Micheaux

Written by: Oscar Micheaux

Music by: Philip Carli

Starring: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, Jack Chenault, Charles D. Lucas, & Bernice Ladd

Runtime: 1h 19m

Genre: Drama, Romance, Race Film

Distributed by: Micheaux Book & Film Company

See link to film below.

Leave a Reply