#173) Within Our Gates (1920)
OR “Don’t Fence Me In”
Directed & Written by Oscar Micheaux
Class of 1992
The Plot: Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is visiting Boston to raise funds for a school in the south for black children. The white community is divided by the request, and the school’s future is in jeopardy. Along the way, Sylvia finds herself cautiously attracted to Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), despite having just been jilted by her fiancé Conrad (James D. Ruffin) due to a misunderstanding orchestrated by her cousin Alma (Floy Clements). When Dr. Vivian fails at wooing Sylvia, Alma tells him of Sylvia’s upbringing on a farm, where her father (William Starks) was accused of murdering the town’s most powerful white man (Ralph Johnson). There’s a complex look at African-American life in the 1920s, and a criminal named Larry (Jack Chenault) who’s around for some reason.
Why It Matters: The NFR hails the film as “groundbreaking” and that the movie “effectively confronted racism head on”.
But Does It Really?: “Within Our Gates” is the earliest surviving film to be directed by an African-American. This alone would warrant historical inclusion on the list, but “Within Our Gates” is still an artistic triumph almost 100 years later. There’s some padding here and there and the standard rudimentary style of silent films, but ultimately I cared about Sylvia and her struggles. The film is an honest, unflinching look at how we treated African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, and it serves as a powerful counterpoint to the other, more-stereotypical depictions of African-Americans in white films of the time. “Within Our Gates” is a powerful reminder of how far we’ve come as a nation, and what filmmaking from different voices can accomplish.
Everybody Gets One: Oscar Micheaux was born on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois in 1884, the son of a former slave. His parents’ attempts to send Oscar to a good school were thwarted by their financial struggles. After becoming a successful homesteader and businessman, and losing all of it when his first wife wiped his account clean, he started writing semi-autobiographical novels. His work focused on African-American life in the Jim Crow era and the possibility of a better life. When studios tried to adapt his work for film, he decided to do it himself, becoming the first African-American to write, direct, and produce his own films.
Shout Outs: The film’s title comes from an intertitle in “The Birth of a Nation” stating that blacks must stay “within their gates”. Many historians have claimed that “Within Our Gates” is a direct rebuttal to “The Birth of a Nation”. The NFR seemed to think so; they selected both films for the list in 1992, forever linking them together.
- Most prints begin with a note from the Library of Congress describing the film’s restoration process, including having to recreate the title cards completely from scratch, using cards from a Spanish print, and educated guesses on Micheaux’s prose.
- Evelyn Preer is credited as “the renowned Negro artist”. Phrasing aside, she was already a well-known singer and stage performer in the 1910s, and had made her film debut in Micheaux’s first film -1919’s “The Homesteader” – earning her the title “The First Lady of the Screen” in the black community.
- Two minutes in and I already need a flowchart. So many characters and relationships to keep track of!
- No offense, but James D. Ruffin is not much of an actor. Even by silent movie standards he’s a bit overdramatic.
- Larry starts coughing and sweating as soon as the detective shows up. He’s not very good at this whole “wanted criminal” thing.
- Good thing this film is almost 100 years old and we don’t have to worry about black voting rights being revoked nowadays, right everyone? …Dear god, what is wrong with us?
- $5000 in 1920 is equivalent to about $61,000 today. If this were any other movie, there would be a talent show Sylvia could enter where the grand prize is $5000.
- Groundbreaking in its production, unique in its storytelling, and it passes the Bechdel test in several scenes! This film is racking up points left and right!
- The actor playing the Reverend is clearly having fun milking it for the camera.
- And now Larry’s sneaking around in broad daylight? You are the worst at this. Get it together, Larry!
- I’m enjoying this film’s pre-“Rashomon” technique of recounting events from different points of view. I found another title card they can use.
- The lynching scenes are tough to watch, but that’s the point. These scenes were a wakeup call to progressive whites of the day (what we would call “woke” now) that this was still happening in our country. These sequences were so controversial in their day some theaters either cut them entirely, or refused to screen the film at all.
- The film ends with Dr. Vivian telling Sylvia to be proud of her heritage, citing the recent work done by African-Americans in the Second Occupation of Cuba from 1906-1909 and in the Battle of Carrizal in 1916. Michaeux’s work often showed the brutal reality of African-American living, but he always ended with hope.
- There is still a lot to unpack with this film, and a 1000 word write-up only scratches the surface. There’s a lot of great essays out there about “Within Our Gates” that are worth your time. I’ll get you started with this piece from the American Historical Association.
- Oscar Micheaux continued to make films for 25 years, though none were as successful as “Within Our Gates”. He died in 1951, and is buried by a gravestone reading “A man ahead of his time”.
- Michaeux has received many posthumous honors over the years, including tributes from the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America.
- We’re making very slow progress, but at long last black filmmakers have become a little more commonplace in mainstream Hollywood. At the time of this writing, we’ve seen the release of “Black Panther” by Ryan Coogler, and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” by Ava DuVernay (the first African-American woman to direct a major studio release).
Further Viewing: The 2014 documentary “Oscar Michaeux: The Czar of Black Hollywood” by Bayer Mack finally gives the man his due.