Monday, 1 June 2020

“Within Our Gates” at 100

I had already planned some weeks ago to watch Within Our Gates for the first time, for its 100th anniversary. As it turned out, the movie, its themes, and the circumstances of its production all make it particularly relevant for consideration in the current moment.

Within Our Gates is a silent romantic melodrama, released in 1920, directed by Oscar Micheaux. It’s the earliest known surviving movie made by a black director, and the specific perspective of a black person in America – having to confront harmful ideas and stereotypes that came before – becomes the very subject of the movie.

It follows Syliva Landry (played by Evelyn Preer), a young African-American teacher from the Deep South, whose school is beset by financial troubles – the classes are overcrowded, and the state grant per child is woefully insufficient. Sylvia heads north, ending up in Boston, to raise funds for the school. Micheaux (who also wrote the movie) fills the plot with colourful characters, intersecting paths, digressing sidebars, romantic mishaps and redemptions, and, above all, the political realities faced by black people in the American South, which had been largely ignored by the white public.

To place the movie in context, it was made in the wake of Hollywood’s most monumental production to date: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Unpacking this movie, its cinematic significance, and the effects of its incendiary racist depictions is heavy work that requires a blog post of its own; suffice it to say that it portrayed the KKK as heroic saviours of white southerners from the supposed dangers presented by the newly emancipated black people of the South.

Micheaux counters this depiction with the story of black people under threat of financial exploitation and physical violence from the white people who surround them, and who still have full grip on the levers of power. Rather than white people needing protection from blacks, it’s a family of black characters in the movie who are brutally lynched by a white mob who suspect them of a crime. Micheaux exposed the harsh reality of oppression suffered by black people in the South to white audiences in the North, who all too easily accepted Griffith’s portrayals of an unpredictably dangerous black populace.

It’s the subject of extra-judicial and unredressed murder of innocent black people that connects the movie most immediately to today. The violence Micheaux depicts is horrifying, as is the footage of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Presumably, now, as before, white perpetrators are motivated by false stereotypes of dangerous black men, by a defence of self-protection that’s either paranoid or dishonest, by an opportunism for pathological violence, and by insecurity from the loss of status of white omnipotence and supremacy.

The movie remains a romantic melodrama, but with a powerful element of moral horror, that strikes all the more forcefully 100 years later. It’s abundantly clear watching the movie that the issues of the time remain with us today, that the injustices and inequities of the past have not yet been set right, and that the reality of oppression has continued without respite. Micheaux’s brisk and forthright storytelling has a blunt quality to it, that emphasises the reality of the political circumstances he depicts.

Micheaux was an entrepreneur who became a successful author and then, under a production company that he founded himself, a producer and director of movies. His father was born a slave in Kentucky, and the family had moved north to Illinois, where Micheaux was born, to get a good education for their children. Micheaux’s interest in social and political progress for black people shows in the movie’s emphasis on the importance of black southerners’ access to education, and the sordid dealings of preachers who offer superstition instead.

Micheaux wasn’t the first black director of movies, but he was the first great black director that we know about today, and the earliest whose movies have survived. Although Within Our Gates hardly did survive. It had been thought lost for years, but a print was found and can now be seen for free online from the Library of Congress: click this link to watch.

As someone who thoroughly enjoys silent movies, I sat captivated through Within Our Gates. Micheaux’s style is intense and imaginative. He animates his characters with vivid details and with grounded performances from his actors. He takes bold steps in the construction of his narrative, with insertions of subplots, cross-cutting, flashbacks, and even two contradictory re-enactments within an extended flashback. The Library of Congress version has no sound at all (not even any music), and the effect may be unsettling for some viewers, especially those new to silent movies. I would encourage you to sit through the first few minutes until you get used to it, to find the surprising world that opens up the past to you – as well as its harrowing spectre in the present day.

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