Within Our Gates
78 minutes / Ages 13+ / 1920 / United States of America / Average:
Abandoned by her fiancé, an educated negro woman with a shocking past dedicates herself to helping a near bankrupt school for impoverished negro youths.
"Within Our Gates" is a remarkable movie that was made in an extraordinary context. In 1916, D.W. Griffith, one of the chief architects of the emerging medium of film, stunned the world with the artform’s greatest undertaking to date, The Birth of a Nation. As towering an artistic achievement as it was—within it, Griffith invented most of the vocabulary of filmmaking that is still fundamental to the craft today—it was notable for another reason: its racism. The Birth of a Nation is an homage to the Ku Klux Klan and its noble and courageous role in restoring the post-Civil War South to law and order (and, not incidentally, to white ascendancy).
In the wake of the success, and controversy, of Griffith’s near-literal demonization of ex-slaves, Oscar Micheaux, himself the grandson of slaves, formed a production company, raised money by selling shares, and began producing independent films, largely with African American casts and marketed mainly to African American audiences. "Within Our Gates" was his second film (the first has been lost) and parallels The Birth of a Nation in having as a central plot device a marriage that unites, in the persons of a man and his bride, the North and the South.
But unlike the Griffith film, "Within Our Gates" portrays its characters as human and complex, good people and bad—of both races—and celebrates black education and understanding between the races. Some of the villains are black, the chief target of comedy is a bigoted white woman, and two of the central characters are an African American doctor and a white woman dedicated to “Negro” education.
Micheaux pulled no punches in his drama of racial relations: the film includes a lynching scene that kept the film out of many theaters. And with his depiction of the attempted rape of a black woman by a white man, Micheaux reminds us that Griffith’s insistence that it was white women who should fear danger at the hands of black men is a lie that flies in the face of historical fact.