Wiithin Our Gates is the earliest surviving feature film by an African American, a distinction that can make it seem merely some historic curiosity. Instead, the film remains dramatically gripping and socially audacious in so many ways. Its mixed-race cast allows it to grapple with issues far beyond the scope both of later all black “race movies” and of tamer Hollywood productions: bigotry, miscegenation, the Great Migration north, racial uplift, and racial betrayal, all under the cloud of Jim Crow-era lynching. This second of Oscar Micheaux’s films (after the lost The Homesteader) centers on a young, light-skinned African American named Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer, the lead also in eight lost Micheaux silents) with a mysterious past and a mission to raise funds in the North for a struggling school for black children in the South.
Micheaux’s thirty years as an independent producer, scriptwriter, director, editor, and distributor makes him a filmmaker like none of his generation. Born the son of two ex-slaves in 1884, he spent three years as a Pullman porter out of Chicago before trying his hand as a South Dakota homesteader, an occupation doomed by harsh winters—and by the scheming of his wife’s minister father, if one can believe the versions in his first and third books: The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913) and its novelization, The Homesteader (1917). He declined an offer from the black-owned Lincoln Motion Picture Company to adapt The Homesteader—preferring “creative control,” as we’d say now—and took up filmmaking himself, financing it with small stock sales similar to the door-to-door way he had pre-sold his books (as described in his 1915 novel The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races). From 1918 through 1939, with a final film in 1948, he made some forty features, an especially astonishing achievement in light of the lack of any institutional structure for their distribution beyond a loose network of theaters and screenings for African American audiences. Micheaux went bankrupt in 1928, near the close of the silent era, and was forced to rely on white financiers for his sound films. It’s clear that his most uncompromising works were his silents, and more’s the tragedy that so few survive.
By comparison with slicker Hollywood conventions, Within Our Gates can initially look meandering and even inept. Certainly it was produced on the lowest possible budget by a self-taught filmmaker, shot in borrowed homes and on the streets of Chicago. Later accounts of Micheaux’s frugal techniques suggest that he seldom allowed more than a single take of any scene. As in his novels, Within Our Gates is structured though convoluted digressions, cutaways to distant stories, and flashbacks interrupting flashbacks, but taken on its own distinctive terms the film is complexly coherent and builds brilliantly. Most of its final half-hour is an astonishing backstory tracing Sylvia’s traumatic youth, including the lynching of her foster parents and an attempted rape by her white biological father. This finale indeed looks like a response—in both storyline and crosscut editing style—to D.W. Griffith’s racist landmark The Birth of a Nation, released four years earlier but hardly forgotten, especially among the African American community.
Within Our Gates’ enigmatic title hints at tolerance, if with a skeptical eye. (The Old Testament phrase originates in the King James translation of Deuteronomy 5:14, which instructs “the stranger that is within thy gates to rest also on the Sabbath alongside you”—it’s no accident that in the film Sunday is the day for lynchings, when whole families can festively join in.) The film’s wealth of often confusingly interlinked characters includes criminals and doctors, philanthropists and murderers, ministers and blackmailers, rural sharecroppers and urban professionals. The most controversial characters created for the film are the race traitors who toady up to whites: the servant Ephrem, whose offscreen lynching is painfully ironic, and the minister “Old Ned,” who at least laments his own hypocrisy. Micheaux cast himself in a cameo as a low-level criminal who discusses selling fake jewelry with the gambler Larry.
The film was completed by late 1919 but delayed from release until January 1920 by two months of debate within Chicago’s film censor board. The major black-owned newspaper of the time, The Chicago Defender, reported on the dispute over the film’s showing, with reference to the city’s race riots the previous summer (in which twenty-three African Americans and fifteen whites died): “Those who reasoned with the spectacle of last July in Chicago ever before them, declared the showing pre-eminently dangerous; while those who reasoned with the knowledge of existing conditions, the injustices of the times, the lynchings and handicaps of ignorance, determined that the time is ripe to bring the lesson to the front.” The film ends with another reflection of the year of production, when World War I was fresh, in the curiously patriotic marriage proposal from Sylvia’s Boston lover, Dr. Vivian, who mixes expressions of love with allusions to battles won by black U.S. Army troops. For Dr. Vivian, such steps toward empowerment are evidence of American society coming together. Sylvia, with her violent personal past, looks not entirely convinced that America can so easily fuse into an integrated whole.
Of Micheaux’s roughly twenty-two silent features, only Body and Soul (1925) survives through an original English-language print. Within Our Gates was long assumed lost, but in the late 1970s film historian Thomas Cripps located in Spain’s national film archive a Spanish print released under the title La Negra. In the 1990s, the Library of Congress reconstructed the film, under my supervision, and it may be worth a few words about what you’ll see in this version.
When the film was distributed in Spain in the early 1920s, the film’s English intertitles were discarded and replaced by Spanish-language ones. No record seems to survive of Micheaux’s original titles, and their reconstruction presented puzzles. The first discovery, useful but disconcerting, was that the sloppy Spanish distributor had in four cases inadvertently left one frame of the English intertitles alongside the new Spanish ones. These four remaining original titles revealed that the Spanish distributor sometimes felt the need to explain or simplify the American context. Most notable is in a scene in which a Southern white man murders the town’s richest white man because (in translation of the Spanish) he has been “cheated and violently insulted.” Micheaux’s keener original title explains that he had been cheated “and when he had called him to terms, had laughed in his face, calling him ‘poor white trash—and no better than a negro.’”
Thus the reconstructed titles can only approximate Micheaux’s originals, but my translation back into English (with assistance from Alex Vargas) attempts to be true to Micheaux’s intertitle style, including his preference to render certain characters’ speech in slang (evident from the original titles in Body and Soul). As fully as possible, the diction and phrasing of the translation back into English are drawn from usages in Body and Soul and Micheaux’s three books of 1913–17. Among these The Forged Note proved especially useful because it introduces characters who reappear in Within Our Gates.
It’s evident from reviews and advertisements that Micheaux edited several different versions of Within Our Gates, partly in response to the threatened censorship brought especially by the lynching scenes. Late in the month of the film’s release, January 1920, he sailed for Europe to arrange international distribution. But for the next seven decades, while The Birth of a Nation was being enshrined in film histories as the first cinematic masterpiece, Within Our Gates was lost from memory. What we have now—via the perilous survival of a single print in Spain—is only one version of Micheaux’s film. But how essential to have it back.
Maestro Michael Morgan conducted the West Coast premiere of the new score by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The score was composed for and performed as part of The Birth of an Answer, an event put on by the Institute of Humanities at Old Dominion University in 2015.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by members of the Oakland Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Michael Morgan