Within Our Gates holds a number of distinctions, not the least that it’s the oldest surviving feature film directed by an African American. But Oscar Micheaux’s anti-racist polemic is far more than a historical first. The film is famously seen as a reaction to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, made only a few years before, that valorized the KKK and is still discussed as though its merits can somehow outweigh its vicious, ingrained racism. Within Our Gates reverses many of the tropes of Birth of a Nation but also plays with them, not for humorous effect but for devastating accuracy. Micheaux’s film exposes racism and sexual violence on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, celebrates black excellence and hopes for a better tomorrow, and digs into the complexities of cinematic representations of black people by starkly representing stereotypes and then exposing them for what they are. In other words, Within Our Gates is far more than a reaction to a racist’s work.
The film follows Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a schoolteacher in a northern city who loses her fiancé through a misunderstanding. She decides to take a job teaching at a school for poor blacks down south. When the school falls upon hard times, she returns north to find financing, meeting Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), and facing both help and hardship from blacks and whites alike. The film’s final act, involving a lynch mob and an attempted rape, exposes the events of Sylvia’s life that drove her desire to educate poor blacks.
Rather than relying on a simple racial binary, Micheaux depicts a panoply of characters, black and white, who reinforce or undercut stereotypes, revealing the forms that bigotry, assimilation, and oppression take. A rich white woman from the south explains that black people will be happier without education; a black preacher instills the religious value of ignorance in his congregation. A white philanthropist rejects her friend’s racism and chooses to help Sylvia; a black professor rescues Sylvia from a mugger. A black servant speaks against other poor blacks and finds himself the target of a white lynch mob; a rich white man discovers his kinship with those he despises.
Gender-based violence and exploitation forms a central part of the narrative, and is perhaps where the film becomes the starkest and, for its time period, the most shocking. Sylvia is beset by a number of men, black and white, who want to possess her – her fiancé attempts to strangle her when he thinks he sees her with another man; her roommate’s brother, a card sharp and gangster, pursues her down south and threatens her when she rejects him. Male violence against women then extends outwards to the harrowing lynching sequence. The white male violence and “protection” of white womanhood in Birth of a Nation is reversed and clarified, as the murder of a racist landowner leads to false accusations and the lynching of an entire family. Racist white men are shown as rapists and murderers and the victimization of both innocent and not-so-innocent black people reveals the layers of hate within white society.
But what’s most remarkable about Micheaux’s film is that, for all its depictions of violence and oppression, it is extraordinarily hopeful and positive about the future of America in general, and for African Americans in particular. It shows a world in which it is possible to rise above ignorance and racism and build an equitable society for the good of all. It doesn’t deny Sylvia’s suffering or preach forgiveness for her oppressors, but neither does it fall into cynicism and hopelessness. It’s a spare film that clearly has a political approach, but its very willingness to depict the explicit violence of racism and misogyny makes it an essential work.
We are used to hearing the virtues of Griffith preached against his vices, as though his undoubted talents as a filmmaker somehow outweigh the virulence of his racism and the role he played in reigniting the KKK in the United States. But if Griffith’s film represents the hopelessness of American racism in failing to depict black people as full human beings, Micheaux’s film provides hope that the US can see its racism for what it is and reject it. Within Our Gates is a seminal part of film history, an essential part of American history, and as powerful an indictment of racism and bigotry in 2020 as it was in 1920.
Within Our Gates is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.