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Film / Within Our Gates

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At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist - though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.
—Opening title card

Within Our Gates is a 1920 film written, produced, and directed by Oscar Micheaux.

It is one of the earliest surviving examples of the "race film", namely, a film with an all- or nearly all-black cast, aimed at black audiences, and in this case, made by a black writer/director. The story centers around Sylvia Landry, who, at the start of the film, has traveled to the North to visit her cousin Alma. Sylvia is awaiting the arrival of her boyfriend Conrad, who is coming home to marry her. However, Alma also loves Conrad, and contrives for him to catch Sylvia in a "compromising position" with a white man. Conrad dumps Sylvia and storms out. Sylvia rejects the advances of Alma's brother-in-law Larry, a gambler and criminal, and instead goes back south to work for the Piney Woods School, a school dedicated to teaching young black children. The school is running out of money, so Sylvia goes back north to raise funds, meeting both Mrs. Warwick, a wealthy white philanthropist, and Dr. Vivian, a young black man who takes an interest in Sylvia. Sylvia won't marry him, though, so Dr. Vivian asks Alma about her, and hears a harrowing tale of Sylvia's past.

Within Our Gates is commonly believed to have been made in response to D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which was both wildly popular and appallingly racist. Oscar Micheaux became the most important director in early African-American cinema, making several dozen films over a career that lasted thirty years. Many of his films are lost, and Within Our Gates was considered lost until a single print was found in Spain in The '70s. All but four of the intertitles were lost due to being replaced by Spanish titles, requiring the Spanish title cards to be translated back into English.

Compare The Scar of Shame, another silent "race film", made seven years later and The Symbol of the Unconquered, a similar Oscar Micheaux film released later in 1920.

Within Our Gates contains examples of:

  • Bigot with a Crush: Armand Gridlestone is highly racist towards black people, however he was once married to a black woman and had a child by her. His daughter, the protagonist Sylvia, only learns about her parentage after Gridlestone almost rapes her. This character point isn't explained and contradicts most of Gridlestone's character, so historians believe that it was added in by censors to hide that Sylvia's either a Child by Rape or the result of an extra-marital affair.
  • Card Sharp: The dealer at Larry's card game has a mirror that allows him to see what cards he's dealing. This precipitates a shootout.
  • Category Traitor:
    • Efrem, the cowardly man who falsely accuses Jasper Landry of murder and doesn't miss an opportunity to suck up to white racists.
    • "Old Ned", the preacher who grovels to white folks and says that black folks should know their place. He tells his congregation that blacks shouldn't worry about things like education and the vote because they're going to heaven. In private, he feels ashamed.
      Ned: 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.
  • Child by Rape: One interpretation is that Sylvia was the product of rape between Gridlestone and her biological mother. The film says that she was the product of a married couple, however many scholars believe that was added in by censors.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Larry, on the run after the fatal shootout at the card game, makes his way back south—and wanders to the town where the Piney Woods school is located, finding Sylvia again.
  • Deus ex Machina: Sylvia is having a tough time finding money in Boston for the Piney Woods school, until she's hit by a car, which just happens to belong to a rich white lady philanthropist. Mrs. Warwick winds up writing a fat check to Piney Woods.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Dr. Vivian is introduced reading a magazine article advocating for "the education of the black race".
  • Flashback: Most of the latter portion of the film is taken up by a long flashback in which Alma tells Dr. Vivian about Sylvia, including the terrifying fate of Sylvia's adoptive parents.
  • Gambling Brawl: A dealer is caught using a mirror to see the other players' hands, which precipitates a shootout.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: As Sylvia is leaving to go back south, after rejecting Dr. Vivian.
  • Hate Sink: Efrem is a scumbag if there ever was one. He's the most despicable of the African-American male characters in the film, described as an "incorrigible" tattletale, who frequently drinks his "master's" liquor, and whose only "pleasure was to take from one place to another" any gossip he can obtain. He also wastes no time in taking advantage of his reputation as the "white man's friend", to (wrongfully) accuse well-meaning African-American Jasper Landry of murdering Philip Gridlestone, and babbling about the accusation to every white shop in town, leading to a mob forming to hunt down the Landry family, forcing them to evacuate. He also proves to be a Dirty Coward as after a week of failing to catch the family, the mob gets impatient, turns on Efrem and he's completely helpless in defending himself from being lynched. He even paints Jasper as a ruthless drunk savage for an article.
  • Heroic Bastard: It is commonly believed by scholars that Sylvia is in fact Gridlestone's illegitimate daughter through a black woman. Whether the affair was consensual or not is open to interpretation.
  • Karmic Death:
    • "Divine justice punishes the real killer", as the white man who really shot Philip Gridlestone, and who joined the lynch mob after the Landrys, is accidentally shot and killed by other whites in the mob.
    • Efrem, the traitorous black man who leads the white lynch mob after Sylvia's family, is himself lynched by the mob when they get impatient about finding Sylvia and her parents.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Sylvia likes Conrad, Conrad likes Alma, Larry likes Sylvia, Alma likes Conrad.
  • Meet Cute: A mugger steals Sylvia's purse. Dr. Vivian tracks him down.
  • The Mole: Efrem, "the white man's friend", spies on the black sharecroppers and reports back to Philip Gridlestone.
  • Near-Rape Experience: Philip Gridlestone's brother Armand tracks down Sylvia, and is about to rape her, when he sees a distinctive scar and realizes that she is the long-lost daughter he had with a black woman. A title card explains that he paid for her education.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Conrad angrily rejects Sylvia and storms off without even bothering to find out what was going on with the white man in Sylvia's room.
  • Race Film: Within Our Gates is one of the most well-known race films.
  • The Reveal: Alma reveals to Dr. Vivian that Sylvia is half-white.
  • Surprise Incest: See Near-Rape Experience above.
  • Take That!: It seems that "Old Ned" was created to take a swipe at the "Uncle Tom" characters that were so popular in mainstream media in the 1920's.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The climax of the film is the terrifying flashback sequence in which an angry white mob hunts down, catches, and hangs Jasper Landry and his wife.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: Efrem exhibits the cowardly, eye-rolling behavior associated with a Stepin Fetchit type, but of course in this film it is presented as humiliating.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There's a real Piney Woods School, which is still open.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Sylvia's quest for funding Piney Woods School is successful when she is hit by a car carrying Mrs. Warwick, a rich lady. Mrs. Warwick writes a fat check.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The lynchers don't even stop at shooting at Emil, son of the lynched Jasper Landry, so the boy escapes on a horse.