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  Within Our Gates Reckoning With The Mob
Year: 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Stars: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, William Smith, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, Miss Evelyn, William Starks, Mattie Edwards, Ralph Johnson. E.G. Tatum, Grant Edwards, Grant Gorman
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Though this tale is set in the North of the United States, where a black man is far less likely to be lynched than in the South, lynchings do occasionally happen. Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is an educated black woman who is being courted by an educated black man, but she is regarded by the jealous Alma (Flo Clements) as a love rival, so when her fiancée shows up to take her away to be married, Alma had arranged it so that Sylvia never received the telegram announcing this, and when he does arrive he is horrified to find her in an apparent clinch with another man. He flies into a rage and nearly strangles her, which is why some months later Sylvia has settled on a life without love and is trying for a job with a school for black children, for she still believes education is important...

As indeed did film director Oscar Micheaux, who distinguished himself as the first African American filmmaker, though his work has been subjected to some scepticism as to its worth down the years. It was true that his style was fairly crude, but his message was uppermost in his mind, and he frequently wished that to be an improving one for the black community. Maybe more ideologically problematic was his habit of making light-skinned actors the heroic players in his melodramas, as he did here, and the darker-skinned ones more villainous, but watch this and you would see that the Alma character was about the same tone as the Sylvia one, and it was absurd to watch his output with a colour chart to gauge who among the cast were more appropriately slotted into the plot.

Besides, the most prominent gambler criminal character was light also. What was important, and remains so to this day, was actually a different film that Within Our Gates was made in reaction to, kind of an "answer film" if you like. That film was D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 supposed classic that, many will tell you, invented the language of film as we know it today. Given that Griffith simply lifted his techniques as seen in this from European cinema, that claim can be legitimately questioned, and besides, as Spike Lee quickly realised, even if it had been instrumental in creating the movies, its message of violent racism was just too repellent to justify its status as a classic. Classic to who? Thanks to that film, The Ku Klux Klan remain a problem to this day, and the lynches that African Americans were subjected to continued with abandon.

Oh, and Triumph of the Will is a really boring film too. There comes a time when a film has to stand on its merits in a cultural context, especially if it had been labelled a classic as Gone with the Wind found out a hundred years after Within Our Gates had been released. That 1939 multi-Oscar winner did at least lay claim to far more merit than The Birth of a Nation no matter how unpalatable its depiction of slavery was, but Micheaux was not operating with either film's resources, and the fact he was able to concoct a nuanced, powerful summation of race and racism in America in 1920 was an achievement in itself. Not all whites were bad - as they hold the money, they are able to fund the school, as one little old lady philanthropist does - yet there are others who want to revoke the vote from the blacks, and keep them cowed through religion (the corrupt preacher was an intriguing character). Then there's the finale, where a black family are lynched, and a black woman nearly raped by a white man, that was about as far from subtle as you could get, a slap in the face to Griffith. The rushed, happy ending may feel contrived, but you would remember the injustice.

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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