(director/writer/producer: Oscar Micheaux; music: Philip Carli-new score; cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Flo Clements (Alma Prichard), Jack Chenault (Larry Prichard), William Smith (Detective Philip Gentry), Grant Gorman (Armand Gridlestone), William Stark (Mr. Jasper Landry), Mattie Peters (Mrs. Landry), James D. Ruffin (Conrad Drebert), Charles D. Lucas (Dr. V. Vivian), Flo Clements (Alma Pritchard), E.G. Tatum (Servant); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; Smithsonian Video; 1920-silent)

“Micheaux’s films are about murder, racial injustice, and lynchings.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates is thought of as the earliest surviving feature film produced and directed by an African-American. The always outspoken Micheaux (“Body and Soul”) said it was the answer to the country’s racism and to the racism of Hollywood films like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s a lost treasure, found in Spain, in 1979, and restored with only a few missing scenes. Gene DeAnna was employed to provide restoration titles as he changed the Spanish to English titles losing some of the plot nuances in the transfer. Philip Carli created a new musical score for the silent. Within Our Gates is now in The Library of Congress, and considered by the AFI (American Film Institute) one of America’s best 400 films.

Micheaux’s films are about murder, racial injustice, and lynchings. Because of poor timing and being released in a year of race riots, and also because of some controversial rape and lynching scenes many exhibitors refused to show it and the film became a box office flop.

Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a child of mixed parents (her father is white, though she was raised by a black family), rejects the attentions of the seamy suitor Jack Chenault and becomes engaged to an honorable black soldier named Conrad, but her rival Alma Pritchard sets it up so Sylvia though innocent is caught in a compromising situation. With the engagement broken, Sylvia leaves Boston and returns to her Deep South rural hometown of Piney Woods and helps a kind-hearted reverend run a financially strapped Negro school. When the school’s economic woes become overwhelming, she returns to Boston to raise money for it. There, she is courted by a white doctor, Dr. Vivian, who is smitten by her. When she accidentally meets white society philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick over a minor traffic accident, she finds someone who is sympathetic to her mission and promises to donate the $5,000 to the school. Her bigoted society southern friend, Mrs. Stratton, tries to talk her out of the donation by saying some damning things about Negroes, and Mrs. Warwick gets so agitated she raises the amount to $50,000. Sylvia returns to Piney Woods and the love sick Dr. Vivian goes to Alma to try to find her. In a flashback, it’s revealed by Alma how Sylvia lost her adopted family. Her father was unjustly accused of murdering cruel white landowner Ralph Johnson, and as a result her parents were lynched.

Micheaux does not hold back his punches. His criticisms are severe, saving much of his scorn for the hypercritical and corrupt black preachers and those blacks who betray their race to curry favor with the ruling white society–letting on that their fawning over the white man will do them no good in the long run. This is shown when the simple-minded servant is lynched despite a lifetime of kissing up to the white man. Micheaux also scorns the white man who tries to get away with raping the Negro woman, as in one scene he has his heroine Sylvia try to thwart the rape of the twisted white man Armand Gridlestone.

The film had some powerful scenes that are unforgettable, such as the lynching of the parents and repeated scenes showing man’s inhumanity to man. But it suffered from a disjointed narrative and character depictions that were more symbolic and exaggerated than real flesh and blood characterizations. Also, its happy ending didn’t seem justified by the events of the film. It seemed artificially added to pander to his black audience, who preferred like white audiences to leave the theater in a good mood. Nevertheless this is a special film from a special director, and deserves to be seen by a wide and diverse audience–not just a black audience.

Within Our Gates Poster