Monday, March 7, 2011

Say it Loud: I'm Black and Proud

Film: Within Our Gates
Format: Internet video on laptop.


The List exists for a number of reasons. It’s a celebration of films that are truly great for one reason or another. Some are simply great films; others are important because of the innovation they brought to the language of cinema. Others, like Within Our Gates are important for historical and cultural reasons. This film is the earliest film produced and directed by an African American.

Like a number of films on this list, I was prepared to gut this one out. I made the commitment at the start of the month to attempt to locate and watch the earliest remaining film on the list every week, and it turns out that this week, it was Within Our Gates’s turn. A no-budget film with amateur actors, and silent doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But, as I said, The List exists for a reason, and committing to watching the entire list means sitting down with every movie and giving it its just due. I braced myself for a rough ride.

The rough ride never showed up. Okay, there were certainly some bumps, and it was far from butter smooth, but all in all, I dreaded this film far more than its reality warranted. This isn’t to say that Within Our Gates doesn’t have problems. It suffers from a number of issues, not the least of which is that it tries to do far too much with its short running time. There are three distinct stories here—the plight of a school, the path of a criminal, and the back story of one of the main characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, as usual. This is the tale of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), who is engaged to Conrad Drebert (James D. Ruffin). Unfortunately for Sylvia, her cousin Alma (Flo Clements) is also in love with Conrad, and arranges for him to spot Sylvia in a compromising position with another man, causing him to call off the engagement.

Sylvia responds to this by returning to the South and a black-only school whose director is too kind-hearted to turn away any child, even those too poor to pay the meager amount needed for education. His tenderheartedness causes the school to approach bankruptcy, so Sylvia heads north to raise the $5,000 needed to keep the school open.

It is here that we encounter the first real racism in the film. In the north, Sylvia encounters three people. First is Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who catches a thief who has stolen Sylvia’s purse. He is quickly taken with Sylvia. Also encountered is Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), a wealthy philanthropist who nearly runs Sylvia down with her car, and then discovers Sylvia’s quest to save the school. Third is Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a woman so dead set against non-whites that she opposes women’s suffrage lest the black woman be given the right to vote.

With money in hand, Sylvia returns to the south, while Dr. Vivian finds out about her past. She was raised by a poor but honest black family who were lynched for a crime they didn’t commit. Sylvia manages to escape, but is nearly raped by a man who turns out to be her biological father. Pretty creepy if you ask me.

What’s interesting here is that while many of the racial problems here are unquestionably the fault of the white people, many are equally the fault of the downtrodden African Americans themselves. Larry (Jack Chenault), the criminal who is also the step-brother of Alma preys on those he can find by swindling them at every opportunity. More insidious is the preacher Ned who realizes he is “selling [his] birthright for a ‘mess o’ pottage’” by telling his congregation that they should remain ignorant and thus get to Heaven while the rich white folk will be condemned to hell.

Just as damaging to the situation of Sylvia and the other honest and hardworking black folk is Efram (E.G. Tatum), who accuses Sylvia’s adopted father, raises the townsfolk against him, and ends up lynched himself, paying for his terrible misdeeds in the most awful way possible.

Certainly there are real problems with this film. It is often amateurish, and while there are a few scenes of action and excitement, a great deal of the film is nothing more than people sitting in rooms flapping their lips at each other, massive numbers of intertitles (that are, admittedly, pretty well written), and people sitting behind desks.

Micheaux did the best he could with what he had to work with. That his efforts aren’t the professional work of other directors of the time is no shame. In many ways, Micheaux is the first independent filmmaker. Within Our Gates is worth watching not simply because it is the earliest cinematic document of a black filmmaker. It should be watched on its own merits, melodramatic and overwrought though they are. It’s too much for what it is, and could easily lose 20 minutes of its already short running time, but as a piece of history, it’s something worthy of note.

Why to watch Within Our Gates: A rescued historical document of great importance.
Why not to watch: Frequently amateurish.

9 comments:

  1. You are really knocking out the silents. Looks like you're about half way through them. Way to go. I recorded this one from TCM and found it more historically significant than theatrically.

    As you work your way to the end of the silents, I would like to suggest that when you get to "Metropolis" that you attempt to get them most recent restoration available (Kino's The Complete Metropolis". As a fan that has seen this title several times over the years (even sought out the book), the newest release brings the whole film to light again and smooths out many of the gaps that have been criticized through the years.

    The story of it's complete restoration is quite fascinating, as well.

    Keep 'em comin'.

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  2. One of the next ones will be silent as well. I'm part-way through Napoleon.

    I agree that this is perhaps more interesting as a historical piece than as a straight film, but I expected it to be absolutely a train wreck, and it really wasn't. It's hardly great, but I found it much more watchable than I predicted it to be.

    And speaking of restoration stories...Within Our Gates was presumed lost until a single copy was discovered in Spain with most of the original intertitles stripped out of it.

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  3. "Yes-- yes-- The Commitments!"

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  4. I am also on a silent kick at the moment - I was just about to ask if you have tracked down Napoleon. Will be interested to see your thoughts on that one.

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  5. @Colby--as a preview, I'll say this: I am consistently surprised (in a good way) at many of the movies on this list.

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  6. Steve - I have had more enjoyment from trying to track down and watch all of the movies on this list than I ever expected. I have seen so many movies that I really enjoyed that I never would have searched out on my own - some of the Buster Keaton silents (Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality, etc.) are recent ones that come to mind.

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  7. For me, that's the real joy and power of this list. When I find something completely out of my comfort zone that I really like, I'm really happy I started on this journey.

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  8. Within Our Gates was not as hard to watch as I feared. I cut it up into three 25-minute segments and that made it a lot easier.

    I taped it off either AMC or TCM in the 1990s but I don't think I ever watched it. I might have just forgotten what happened or I might have watched a few minutes and gave up.

    But I found it on YouTube and decided to give it another try. At times, I was actually kind of into it for a few minutes here and there.

    For some reason I love the section where the philanthropist woman is getting advice from her friend from the South, Mrs. Racist-Twat. And she mentions Father Ned, the black preacher, and the scene shifts to Ned preaching to the black congregation. I find the church scene very entertaining. And then Ned goes to see those white fellows who tell him what a good Negro he is for helping keep the black folks in their place. And he closes the door and reveals that he knows he's talking nonsense and he's going to hell for it. Great scene!

    But it's not over! It seems like a few days or at least a few hours have passed in the Father Ned scene. But the scene shifts back to the philanthropist and Mrs. Racist-Twat and she's still talking about how stupid the coloreds are and the white man has to take care of them or they'll freeze in the winter if left to themselves! Give it a rest, lady! It's realistic, though, in my experience. There's a certain type of Southerner that will go on and on about race and the Negro problem, and I bet it was worse in 1920.

    Now, I've seen all but two of the first forty films on the list. Napoleon is hard to find. The Wheel is on YouTube but I'll have to be in the right mood to watch it. It would take me all day if I cut it into 25-minute segments.

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    1. Napoleon is pretty great and worth tracking down. The Wheel is long, but worth it for the most part.

      I expected Within Our Gates to be pretty horrid, but I thought there was quite a bit here that wasn't too bad considering the circumstances of its creation. It obviously has its problems, but based on how it was created, there was a lot to like here as well.

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