Within Our Gates (1920) directed by Oscar Micheaux is the oldest surviving film by an African American director. Indeed, being responsible for directing, writing and independently producing 40 films in his lifetime, Micheaux can lay claim to being one of the most prolific African American filmmakers of all time.
The film ambitiously weaves together a number of narrative threads. These include a love triangle, a woman attempting to raise funds for the survival of a school for African American children in the South, a crime story or two and numerous broader explorations of African American life in the early 20th century. Indeed it is useful to think of the film in this way, as a broad exploration of the conditions and racism of the time. Personally I found that trying to follow the individual narrative strands left me a little lost as to exactly what was going on. I did find this quite frustrating, not knowing exactly what was happening. And perhaps that is more a criticism of me as a viewer rather than the film itself. But I think that the fact I was struggling to keep up meant that the film did not grab me by the throat early on, leading me to be pretty unengaged throughout.
The thing that the film succeeds most in doing is rendering a portrait of just what life was like in the U.S at this time, a country starkly divided into North and South. A place where even in the more hospitable north, there was still the “occasional lynching”. This is no sugar-coated view of the world, even in this version, which apparently had to undergo numerous cuts before the Chicago censors of the day would allow it to be released. There is some confronting violence against women depicted along, with almost continuous racism. Stylistically the film is very sharp, Micheaux was clearly a highly talented filmmaker (his style was reputedly derided in the 20s). Whilst I have criticised the coherence of the narrative, which I do maintain is probably the major weakness of the film, the editing of Within Our Gates is really quite excellent. It is impressive in the way it manages to weave the different narrative strands together, occasionally juxtaposing images side by side to great effect.
There is a lot of really intriguing stuff to see and admire in Within Our Gates, both as a historical document and as a piece of film art. But overall, it just does not hold up for me as a cohesive whole. This means it is relegated a little to the status of important film history curiosity, rather than fully fledged classic.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
You can check out the entire film here, to see if you agree with my thoughts:
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