United States, 1920
Directed by Oscar Micheaux
With Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Flo Clements (Alma Prichard), James D. Ruffin (Conrad Drebert), Jack Chenault (Larry Prichard), S. T. Jacks (Reverend Wilson Jacobs), Charles Lucas (Dr. Vivian), Mrs. Evelyn (Elena Warwick), Leigh Rollin Whiper (the preacher), William Starks (Jasper Landry), Ralph Johnson (Philip Gridlestone), Grant Gorman (Armand Gridlestone)
The title suggests descriptions of a domestic world, a tour in private lives, an intimate view opposed to the spectacle of the wider world. The first scene has indeed truly humble and personal contents: in a drawing-room where openings are closed by heavy curtains a woman is sitting at a desk, writing and reading, dealing with her mail it seems. She is Sylvia Landry and the film would tell her story, present and past, in a rather awkward effort to shoot a full biography that would resonate with other African Americans’ lives.
This is a so-called race film – that is, a production coping with African Americans, casting them and catering to them – to use the troubling label that was the currency at the time. It bolsters the reputation of director Oscar Micheaux as a pioneer in Black culture, a former homesteader and writer who chose the nascent movie pictures industry as the best tool to prove African Americans could achieve cultural success and prominence and also be educated about social realities and opportunities. So that Sylvia is a teacher and that the plot is partly centered on the challenges of education cannot surprise. But the last part, which is a long flashback clumsily and indeed belatedly attached to the thrust of the narrative, leads to an altogether different social discourse, based on bitter memories of the recent past, a denunciation of racial violence bluntly reminding the White oppression. The film seems actually to have been conceived as a personal response to the resounding success, including in strictly artistic terms, of David Wark Griffith’s epic feature of 1915, “Birth of a Nation”. “Within Our Gates” depicts what it means, and used to mean, to live on a daily basis in the most concrete and intimate ways in a racist nation when you are the target of this ingrained racism – the plight of a community is fiercely put in front of the camera to put the record straight.
Melodrama, by contrast with the grandiose effort of a period piece and an epic, becomes the best tool for this need to bear witness. It is off on the most mawkish terms, the sentimental passion of Sylvia pitted against the jealousy of her friend Alma Prichard, her troubles with a sincere but easy to manipulate lover, Conrad Drebert, and with an unwanted and undesirable suitor, Larry Prichard, the stepbrother of Alma and a gangster. When disaster (Alma making Conrad hate Sylvia) tediously happens, the upset Sylvia can begins an edifying journey aiming to prove that education matters. She goes to the South to help a school for poor African Americans run by strong-minded Reverend Wilson Jacobs, but since the institution lacks money she decides to get back in Chicago to raise money. She struggles to convince anyone till she is knocked over by the limousine of a philanthropist, Elena Warwick, who eventually accepts to sign a check – but after she got rid of the doubts a prejudiced and bad fellow wealthy socialite tried to sow in her mind. Sylvia also meets a charming and politically committed doctor of her race, Dr. Vivian, who would find it hard to forget her.
But when Sylvia is back at the community the school is helping she runs into Larry, on the run but still up to bad tricks, including defaming the woman who refused him. So Sylvia flees the place, saddening an enamored Reverend Jacobs, and tries to hide away, puzzling that other enamored fellow, Dr. Vivian. A talk with a repentant Alma gives the doctor decisive insight on the young woman. Sylvia comes from the South and is the adopted daughter of a family of peasants toiling a ruthless landowner, Philip Gridlestone; her success at school encourages her to advise her father Jasper Landry not to be harassed and robbed by the landowner; but a conversation between Jasper Landry and Philip Gridlestone turns unexpectedly into a tragedy when an angry White shoots on the rich. The Landrys flee in a hurry as the white folks of the place think the farmer was the real killer; the manhunt ends up with a lynching while the dead’s brother, Armand Gridlestone tries to catch up with Sylvia, who was busy elsewhere, and when he finds her, vows to kill her. But when he notices a scar on her bosom, he suddenly realizes she could be his own daughter.
The narrative does look like a baffling melodrama, with really far-fetched and unabashedly romantic twists heaped one above the other. The romance part of the film obviously casts Sylvia as a brave woman whose personality cannot but elicit sympathy and true love, an engaging but suffering character beckoning to men and pleasing the audience. The increasingly intricate story, complete with elements seemingly unrelated to the point made, in particular the profile of a private detective and the dubious behaviors and thinking of a Black preacher, cannot be as forceful and compelling than a more clear-headed screenplay could have been. The cast often lacks spontaneity and genuineness – their performances remain simplistic.
But that final part does convey in a few, fast-paced and eloquent scenes, the sordid reality of the South, the blind hatred of the Whites as well as their hypocrisy, including in the sexual field. More interestingly, the didactic purpose of the film does extent to the ideas and behaviors of the African Americans – from this perspective, the odd sequence about the preacher is a stunning and scathing attack on religion, or rather the way African Americans let belief and misguided teachings distract them from social criticism and on the contrary turn them into dumb, powerless flocks assenting to an immoral social hierarchy. The film in fact wants to convince the audience to choose the right attitude and exposes incredibly flawed black characters freely borrowed from the racial stereotypes of the mainstream cinema’s productions in order to highlight the virtues the other characters, on the frontline of the plot, embody – this is a film exploiting other films to contest their message, a cinema targeting another kind of cinema with the same images. This is a pretty modern approach serving both a blistering attack on widespread racial prejudice thriving then in the United States and Micheaux’s strong belief in the educational and edifying power of the moving pictures, turning melodrama into a social critique and a bitter reminder of what History was behind any epic vision.