“Again, I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage. Negroes and whites – all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.”
When we talk about important movies, we’re often speaking in terms of milestones. Their importance stems from being the first to do something significant, and this designation often rests with the production of the film rather than the film itself. It’s the making of the movie that matters. Within Our Gates is one of these milestone films, the first to be created by an African-American. However, unlike many other milestone films, Within Our Gates goes further than simply being the first film by an African American. Its powerful message and sensational story cut right into the conversation about race in early 20th century America. Most scholars suggest that it was filmmaker Oscar Michaeux’s answer to The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan propoganda film of 1915. After witnessing the power and emotion in Micheaux’s craft, it’s clear that Within Our Gates shouldn’t just be regarded as a milestone picture. It should be studied and honored as a gripping piece of cinematic commentary. It should be regarded as a great film.
The movie portrays a young African-American woman, Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer), and her efforts to raise money for the preservation of a school for African Americans in the South, where discrimination and public unrest have made it difficult to acquire education for black children. Through her journey, we see other traces of discrimination and heated race relations which culminate in violence as the film progresses. In different screenings for the film, different sections were often cut out to avoid race riots similar to the 1919 Chicago riot the previous year. In one of its most powerful, horrifying scenes, a black man is lynched out of pure malice while Landry is nearly raped nearby. The film is an unsettling, unrelenting look at the early 20th century in which Micheaux presents the violence and inhumanity that derives from racial discrimination in America.
In one of the most disconcerting scenes, a black preacher called Old Ned delivers a sermon in which he encourages black people to accept a subservient place in society, suggesting they will be rewarded in heaven for doing so. When questioned further by a group of wealthy white patrons, Old Ned reassures them that black people should not seek any kind of equality in society. However, once he leaves the room, he laments his situation and states that he does believe in racial equality, and that he has “sold [his] birthright. All for a miserable mess of pottage.” While Micheaux presents horrifying looks at racial violence towards the end of the film, he also presents more nuanced, complex scenes about the nature of racism throughout the movie. With such a system in place in which even figureheads of the black community are coerced into accepting their subservience, Micheaux demonstrates the enormous difficulty in overcoming this societal struggle.
Within Our Gates is also an inspiring piece of cinema when we realize that Micheaux worked with a shoestring budget, this being his first film. Props and clothing had to be borrowed and scenes had no chance for a reshoot at a later date, leaving Micheaux with a painstaking cinematic process. However, the end result is a wonderfully shot piece of cinema. While too many movies of the silent film era relied on dialogue slides to tell the story, Within Our Gates only uses them when necessary. The actors also over-exaggerate their movements in order to more clearly present their scenes visually. Micheaux understands that silent film has to let these visuals do the work, and this style pays off wonderfully with a clear set of physical actions that smoothly convey the narrative.
If there’s anything central to our understanding of Within Our Gates, it’s that this is a daring film. Not even one hundred years ago, the production of such a work was incredibly dangerous and controversial. Oscar Micheaux is one of the most admirable filmmakers in American history for his work on the film (and his roughly 40 later works, many of which deal with similar themes). While many young filmmakers will work off a limited budget today in order to express some artistic vision, Micheaux had something far more important to say. By pointing the camera at systemic racism, both its causes and consequences, Micheaux makes a daring mark on cinematic history that can only be admired and respected today.
Films Left to Watch: 926