Within Our Gates (1920) is a silent film by the director Oscar Micheaux that portrays the contemporary racial situation in the United States during the early twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration of blacks to cities of the North and Midwest, and the emergence of the “New Negro”. It was part of a genre called race films.
The plot features an African-American woman who goes North in an effort to raise money for a rural school in the Deep South for poor Black children. Her romance with a black doctor eventually leads to revelations about her family’s past and her own mixed-race, European ancestry. The film portrays racial violence under white supremacy, and the lynching of a black man. Produced, written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, it is the oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director.
Often regarded in the context of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which had appeared five years earlier, critics have considered Micheaux’s project as a response to Griffith. The film’s portrayal of lynching shows “what Blacks knew and Northern Whites refused to believe”, turning the “accusation of ‘primitivism’… back onto White Southern culture”.
Early judgments that Micheaux’s work lacked aesthetic finesse or artistic power now appear short-sighted. Micheaux constructed Within Our Gates to educate his audience about racism, uplift, peonage, women’s rights, and the urban “new Negro” emerging after the Great Migration.
His movement in the plot between North and South was similar to that of D. W. Griffith, who used a North-South marriage plot, but also expressed the mobility of peoples during this period. Griffith dramatized a white reunion of regions that canceled the legacy of Reconstruction to leave blacks out of the national picture. Micheaux’s film ended with a wedding that united sophisticated African Americans from the North and South. Together, they symbolically lay claim to the whole nation, despite discrimination against blacks in the military, and the racial riots of 1919, which were based in labor and social competition.
Critics (such as Jane Gaines, Ronald Green, and Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence) celebrated the skill with which Micheaux intercut the lynching of the Landry family with the attempted rape of Sylvia by Armand Gridlestone. This editing deconstructed the white ideology that lynching was to punish black men for alleged sexual assaults against white women. Micheaux portrayed the more frequent sexual assaults of black women by white men, alluding to the widespread historical practice of white men taking advantage of black women slaves. Other passages were edited to deconstruct white visual traditions and white ideologies.
He provided detailed layering of allusions to current social and political events, including the death of Theodore Roosevelt, the contributions of African-American soldiers to the war, and debates in the US Senate over Jim Crow and labor peonage in the South. The film can only be evaluated in its fragmentary form of the only surviving print.
Watch Within Our Gates here.