The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Within Our Gates

One of the best kept secrets of Chicago’s secret film history is that the Second City was in fact first when it came to producing “race movies,” films made by, for and about African Americans. William Foster, the black manager of Chicago’s Pekin Theater, founded the Foster Photoplay Company and directed what is believed to be the first movie with an all-black cast, The Railroad Porter, in 1912. The success of that slapstick short film, reportedly inspired by the Keystone Cops, in turn inspired other African Americans to try their hand at motion picture production and black-owned independent film companies soon sprang up in America’s major metropolitan areas. It would not be until 1919 however that an enterprising black filmmaker would attempt to make a “feature” motion picture (i.e., one running more than forty minutes in length) and this too first happened in Chicago: the film was titled The Homesteader, an epic “super-production” running over two and a half hours, and its director was an ambitious first-time helmer named Oscar Micheaux (pronounced “me-shaw”).

Micheaux was well known in Chicago even before he ventured into the movie business. As a young man he spent five years homesteading a farm he had purchased in Gregory, South Dakota. From there, he published articles in The Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s most widely circulated African American newspapers, urging black Americans to follow his example by moving west and purchasing land. Micheaux’s experiences as a farmer served as the basis for the plot of his first novel, The Conquest, which he self-published in 1913 and followed up with The Forged Note in 1915 and The Homesteader: A Novel in 1917. Micheaux traveled around South Dakota, selling these novels door-to-door to his predominantly white neighbors. He reincorporated as the Micheaux Book and Film Company in 1918 and used the same door-to-door business model to sell stock in what would be his first film, an independently produced adaptation of his most recent novel. The resulting movie, shot at the recently abandoned Selig-Polyscope studio on Chicago’s north side, was phenomenally successful with African American audiences and critics. Although it is sadly a “lost” film today, the success Micheaux had with The Homesteader encouraged him to sink his profits back into his company; a follow-up movie, Within Our Gates, was rushed into production and released the following year. This incredible film, an incendiary and unflinching look at racism (also shot in Chicago), remains the earliest surviving feature made by a black director.

Micheaux directing a film that may be Within Our Gates:

One of the most interesting aspects of Within Our Gates, especially from a 21st century film studies perspective, is that it effectively functions as a response to D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 production of The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s epic, a technically astonishing piece of virtuoso filmmaking that is sometimes credited as the movie that first codified “film language,” galvanized audiences wherever it played. This was in part due to Griffith’s unparalleled skill with dynamic framing and cutting and in part due to the movie’s unfortunate racism – notably the climactic scene where the Ku Klux Klan heroically ride to the rescue of the white protagonists who are trapped in a cabin besieged by a black militia. This climax is a good example of Griffith’s pioneering and massively influential technique of using crosscutting to create suspense during rescue scenes. The fact that Within Our Gates would appropriate Griffith’s editing schemes (on a tiny fraction of the budget of The Birth of a Nation and in order to explicitly reverse the earlier movie’s ideology) has ensured that, ironically, Griffith and Micheaux are now jointly studied in film history classes throughout American college campuses.

Within Our Gates tells the melodramatic and somewhat convoluted tale of Sylvia Landry (played by the peerless Evelyn Preer), a young African American woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and the south and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate locations in order to generate a suspenseful climax. The climactic scene in Within Our Gates however is rendered even more complex by containing a lengthy flashback to Sylvia’s youth (and thus involves cutting across time as well as space) and, specifically, the events that led to her adoptive black parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where Mr. Gridlestone, a villainous middle-aged white man, attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. This disturbing near-rape occurs ironically beneath a portrait of America’s Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Gridlestone’s attempted rape of Sylvia reverses the ideology of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation:

In The Birth of a Nation, the actions of the Ku Klux Klan are justified (and even valorized) as necessary in order to combat the threat of potential assaults on white civilians (particularly white women) by supposedly dangerous black men. The complex and clever intercutting of the climax of Within Our Gates unpacks this racist ideology by showing the historical reality of who did the lynching as well as who represented the real sexual menace. Upon its initial release, Within Our Gates garnered its own Birth of a Nation-style controversy, including a protracted two month battle with Chicago’s local censorship board that virtually guaranteed the film would play to packed houses when it eventually opened in early 1920.

Like The Homesteader, Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, the film is still only an approximation of Micheaux’s original vision; sadly, all 15 of Micheaux’s surviving pictures exist today only in truncated form, typically a result of censorship boards excising material deemed inflammatory (although oftentimes such decisions were made arbitrarily). Even more remarkable than the movie itself is the fact that Within Our Gates was merely one of the earliest steps in a directorial career that lasted thirty years and comprised approximately forty five features (by far the most prolific career of any black filmmaker of the era). Micheaux would go on to be the first director to cast the great Paul Robeson in a film (1925’s Body and Soul), the first to make an “all-talkie” race movie (1931’s The Exile) and he would continue to make films undaunted, even under the threat of looming bankruptcy and occasionally in the face of scathing criticism by the black press, until shortly before his death in 1951.

The Oscar Micheaux story deserves to be much more widely known and his films deserve to be more widely seen. Throughout his career, Micheaux’s fortunes rose and fell, the quality of his output varied wildly and his battles with local censorship boards were legendary. But he was indefatigable and resilient. He had to be; Micheaux spent decades touring the country with his movies, which he self-distributed out of the trunk of his car, oftentimes while staying one step ahead of his creditors. And he did it all during an age when independent film production was not considered a viable career path for anyone in America, much less a black man. Today Micheaux is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an annual film festival in Gregory, South Dakota. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Chicago to mark the addresses where he shot his first movies. The Micheaux story is yet another chapter in the remarkable but too little known history of early film production in Chicago.

If anyone has any information regarding the location of “Capital City Studios,” the Chicago studio where Within Our Gates was allegedly shot, please contact me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com.

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

43 responses to “The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Within Our Gates

  • John Preskitt

    Excellent find, or should i say excellent discovery whomever found the print in Spain. Crazy to think of what celluloid we’ll find in the future.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Exactly, John. It’s crazy how many “lost” films are discovered every year. My favorite story is how the original version of The Passion of Joan of Arc was found in the closet of a Swedish mental hospital in the 1980s. Also, the complete Metropolis wasn’t discovered until 2008.

  • suzidoll

    I am a big fan of MIcheaux. Facets used to carry his films on VHS–though they were not in very good shape. Still, it’s remarkable any survived considering he worked independently and there was no organized institution to preserve his work.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I’m a big fan too although I can think of no other director of that era who remains as divisive today. A lot of historians think he was technically incompetent, while others hail his crazy sense of film syntax as intentionally radical, Dziga Vertov-style innovation. For me, the truth is somewhere in between.

  • Josh

    Within our gates was the first silent film i have ever seen .

    Had you not told us in class that this film was made by an African American I would have thought otherwise . This film was very racially charged and way too similar to the race relations we have today . The scene that stuck me most was the lynching scene . It literally made me cringe . The only other movie to do that was American History X . When Edward Norton makes the African American bite the curb .

    The scene where they frame Landry for killing Mr Gridlestone . This is all too familiar in Chicago . People getting framed and can’t prove their innocence .

    Although this was a silent film , it made a lot of noise .

  • Brian Stern

    Of the silent era films I have seen thus far this was the first that was feature length. Surprisingly it was among what the more thought provoking films I have seen when it came to the racial divide. The polar switch you described in comparision of the rape depictions in Birth of a Nation versus Within our Gates really showed a change of perspective and gave a glimpse of two sides of a subject that many are ignorant about. Besides the racial tones seen in the film I found the way that this film was discovered and survived to be the most interesting. Hearing how films were being censored and edited at a theatre by theatre basis made having a copy even remotely close to the filmmaker’s original vision a tall order. In regards to this film it was nearly excellently restored to what you would think a theatre patron might have seen back in the day. My only complaint was the musical accompaniment that plays along with the film sometimes changed to a modern sounding synthesizer type of beat which took away from the tone of the scenes. The idea of having a seemingly lost film wind up found in an unlikely place on the other side of the world is astounding. Reminds of a bit of dialogue in a movie from a few years back. The movie was Sahara and a bit of the plot involved a Confederate era gold coin is found in a desert in Africa. One of the main characters trying to make sense of the distance the coin travelled to the main character and has a line about saying how his father collected old coins and they wound up in a shoebox in New Jersey. The idea of things being seemingly lost just waiting to be found is intriguing.

  • Joseph Jackson

    When it comes to Black cinema, the common moviegoer tends to have misunderstandings about its history. The general consensus is that it got started by Sidney Poitier’s films, flourished with blaxploition in the 70s, was killed by “The Wiz” film by 1978, laid dormant for the 80s (with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor being some of the few successful black film stars), was revived in the 90s by Spike Lee and other filmmakers and has continued success today with both the good like Steve McQueen and not so good like Tyler Perry. However, before all of that, in the heart of Chicago was a growing movement of black cinema, slowly starting to make its name. Directed by Oscar Micheaux came “Within Our Gates” one of the more brutal and hard-hitting criticisms of the racial attitudes of the time.

    The plot revolves around Sylvia Landry’s quest to raise money for a school for black children as well as follows the many trials of people in her life. We witness the stories of many people, including Sylvia’s own childhood. From Old Ned, the sell-out preacher, Elena Warwick the kindly white philanthropist and many more. It’s as brutally honest as a silent film could get at the time. From the straight forward writing, the down to earth performances and even the cinematography, this is as a brutally honest look at racism in the early 20s.

    What makes this film work is that it’s a dark look at both black and white America in the 1920s. While we have the typical (though tragically true) racist white land owner but we also have shockingly, black villains…kinda. As I mentioned, Old Ned is a sell-out preacher, constantly talking about the failings of the black man and using religion to hold them down. He seeks only money and safety from his hurtful teachings. However at the very least, he does feel guilt for his actions, which the landowner’s henchman does not have. Efrem the henchman is a dirty rotten rat of a human being, gleefully getting Sylvia’s parents lynched all for the sake of his own safety and popularity. Unlike most of the black characters whom speak fairly intelligently and dignified, Efrem talks like a bloody minstrel show character…he even looks like one! You want to see the little rat get his comeuppance…and he does….oh my does he…

    Efrem’s death is what I like to call a “Rule of Rose death.” There is a video game called “Rule of Rose” and throughout it, you want to see the child villains (all the characters are children as it’s the study of a woman’s past horrors) who have been putting you through such turmoil suffer. When they get killed however, you feel less satisfaction and more…guilty, as if to say “Didn’t you want this to happen you heartless bastard?” Efrem gets lynched…on screen. You cheer that the scum gets killed…but he gets killed the same way many innocent black citizens got killed. With Sylvia’s parents lynching, it’s a dark reminder that it didn’t just happen to people like Efrem. It’s as if the filmmakers said “Hey, here’s the character you hated getting hanged, now here are the characters you liked going the same way!!!”

    It’s a very dark film but definately needed at the time it was made, and thank god after almost one hundred ways, most of North America has moved past this era.

  • Kitty Richardson

    What I find most intriguing, inspiring and absolutely gut wrenching about “Within Our Gates” is its modern accessibility. For an independent film made in 1920 the film covers an amazing amount of specific and not yet textbook defined struggles faced by the African American community. The portrayal of certain African American characters as disreputable shows that Micheaux realized that to progress as a community criticism of the unnamed and unexamined behavior, that had grown up around white supremacy, of that same community had to occur. Analyzing this behavior made it open to destruction and many did not appreciate that as the practice of religious beliefs and of attempts of white assimilation, which African Americans had used as a means to survive, came under the microscope. The lying preacher, Old Ned and even The Leech all exemplify this behavior and the questionable aspect of upholding these practices as they are shown to be a means of oppression. Quelling the justified rage of black communities through promises of a divine beyond as reward for a passively lived life and by re-channeling this rage at others within the community and pitting poc against each other in competition for an unachievable status of whiteness. The parallels between “Within Our Gates” and the modern world, where the twitter hashtag #teamlightskin was a thing that existed not even as a joke, is unnerving and made the viewing somewhat somber as well as a call to arms.

  • Tyler Kiczula

    Oscar Micheaux’s story is incredible. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for an African American in this time period to make this film. It’s hard to believe that he went door to door in rural South Dakota selling novels to make money which allowed him to make his films. Not only did he make a film he made a “race film”, which was controversial in both communities. It’s very fascinating that this film counters the ideology of Birth of A Nation. What’s sad though is that this film seems all too relevant today, especially after the recent elections. I would have loved to see the uncensored version of this film, it’s too bad we don’t have it. Hopefully more of his work is discovered, I’d definitely be excited to see more of his films.

  • Jeno James

    This is most silent film that I’ve ever watched thus far this was the first that was feature length. This movie seemed like it’s about racism and abusing innocient people. At the scene where Larry had gone back to the north side to his step sister Alma, she looked nervous and told Larry that he shouldn’t have come back to the north side because Detective Phillip Gentry had police protection around Almas house for killing a man when he was playing a game of poker. Larry was standing there smoking his cigarette and looked like he didn’t really care. Alma was to beg him to leave town by grabbing out of the house. Seemed like Larry didn’t want to leave his step sister.

  • Jennifer Domkowski

    Within Our Gates was a very powerful film to watch. It’s so much more common that movies now portray racism in a comedic way or involve a lot of stereo types that aren’t accurate to all people. I can only imagine what a film like this meant to people especially at this time period, but even today where we still deal with discrimination. This film was also very realistic compared to the exaggeration some movies had. Even though, there were obvious messages that wanted to come across in this film such as how there was a scene with a white man trying to rape Sylvia in correlation to how some people felt it was only African American men who were a threat, I felt like the film wasn’t over exaggerated in any extent to make it seem like that’s what the entire movie was based on, making an extreme opposite statement to the earlier film mentioned with the white women being victims to black men. This movie showed all people as individuals. There were intelligent and morally correct people in this film that were African American and also Caucasian. It was a very realistic and also honest, yet didn’t show an overly extreme statement such as that “all people are a certain way.” I think because of this it made the scenes showing obvious racism even more powerful and effective.

  • James Hrajnoha

    Within Our Gates was a very powerful piece of race cinema and one I had not known existed, as well as the KKK film Birth of a Nation. But what I would like to add to say is that of all characters in this film none caught my attention more then Efrem, who is like a male African American equivalent to Gossip Girl, except at the end of it all it ends in a lynching. Which is a rather dark way to look at this but as i’ve thought about him the more that connection feels right. But this movie’s end was both bittersweet and sweet depending on how you look at it. if you look at it as now she has someone to love and cherish her, or that the country she calls home does not truly love or want her there.

  • Rajiv Mishra

    Oscar Micheaux’s, “Within Our Gates” is by far one of the most inspirational and gripping films that I have seen. What makes this film truly incredible is the fact that this was made in 1920, a time when short films were most commonly enjoyed, following Chicago’s first ever feature film was made by the same director just a year before! Originally when I had read the phrase “film language” I didn’t know what was meant by that. However, after seeing this film I understand that it means expressing scenes, plot, story, life, struggle, obstacles, sex, love, pain, suffering, joy, and emotion. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of detail that Micheaux displays in the direction of the film. The scene in which Sylvia Landry’s mother and father are hanged was quite gruesome but it depicts the realism that is and was taking place during this time period in southern states.

    Going back to the language of film, the message that Micheaux is sending to the 1920 audience is the depiction of the beauty of an african american, and what is means to be an african american living in the south. The message is simply that human beings with positive intentions, regardless of the pigmentation of their skin will always settle for what is the right thing. Even in the flashback scene in which Sylvia is about to be raped by Armand, who is her illegitimate father. Armand pays for Sylvia’s education and leaves without telling her that he is her father because of the negative implications.

    ~Rajiv

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  • Tink De Lance

    This movie was an eye-opener for me. I knew about the racism of the time but to actually see the lynching being acted out was a shock to me. Especially the fact that they tried to include the kid. I liked seeing it from the African American perspective because it didn’t sugar coat the way they were treated like in a lot of movies and it didn’t portray them all as silly or uneducated. Micheaux should also be commended for the way he portrayed white people. I think he portrayed them in a far better light than black people are depicted in a lot of ‘mainstream’ movies.

  • Garrett Solomon

    “Within Our Gates” proved to be fascinating for me from a historical perspective not just because of its place in the history of African-American filmmaking, but also because the film gave me an idea on how independent film distribution worked in the early 20th century. The film’s director, Oscar Micheaux, would take the films he made and distribute films across the country himself. In this sense, he was like a door-to-door salesman of the film industry. But considering how indie film distribution worked back in the day, Micheaux found himself prone to a number of setbacks, one of which was having his films hacked up by local censors to meet sensibilities at the time. As a result, Micheaux’s existing films are only available today in incomplete forms while a good amount of the rest of his work became lost over time, so I may never know how Micheaux’s 2 ½-hour directorial debut “The Homesteader” turned out. This is kind of a shame because Oscar Micheaux was making movies in an effort to make white audiences understand the plight of the African-American community in ways that D.W. Griffith not only failed at, but was hypocritical about as well.

  • Patrick Stein

    with in our gates was created in 1920 by the infamous oscar muchieax who not only directed the film, but also wrote and produced it. at the time this piece was celebrated for it’s explicitly and because the producer and director was blank also the movie really tested the waters of the f.cc.of the time. in earth shattering methane that film was debated about for the gruesome imagery that could easily incite a race war.you have to remember even though this film would got maybe a pg13 rating today, it came out in 1920, a very conservative era.so the media heavily criticized the release of this film and similar to today’s media they thrive off of scandal so this was a huge story.. this film was mainly flagged for a rape scene and lynchscene both of which they don’t really show.just before and after shots.I was expecting tarantino and fell short.

  • Nicole Majewski

    Within our gates was incredibly fascinating to watch because we saw the racism that was going on during that time from the black communities perspective. Though knowing that racism was a prevalent part of our history this film really put it in perspective. There were scenes much like in a horror film I had a hard time watching and almost had to look away. The lynching scene was one of those. We learn about of Sylvia’s hardworking, family oriented adoptive parents that were working towards paying for their children’s education to let them have a better life. We later see a misunderstood situation unfold that ended in the death of Sylvia’s fathers boss. This leads her father and her mother being lynched by an ignorant mob of white people. Sylvia’s father’s boss was white and the ironic part was that he was actually killed by another white man. Another bit of irony is the reason why the mob was miss lead was that they were given wrong information by the black butler. This man thought he had his ticket in with this angry mob for giving up Sylvia’s dad but it actually got him lynched for no reason other than the color of his skin. Watching that all unfold was tough to watch. Then actually seeing them get hung. The only bit of light in that whole scene was seeing Sylvia’s brother get away on a horse while all of this was unfolding. The next scene that was hard to watch was the rape scene. Watching Sylvia struggle to fight her way away from that man was a tough scene to watch. It seemed like a scene that went on and on. Only to have her be saved by the scar on her chest marking her as one of his children. Bringing so many other thoughts into your mind like realizing that her real mom most likely fought this same fight and receiving that scar on her chest was just another traumatizing event poor Sylvia had to go through in her life. All of these dark events making her a strong, determined woman doing everything she could for her cause. Her cause being perfectly depicted by a quote for her, “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition.” Oscar Micheaux was definitely an innovator of his time. He brought through his film so much emotion and pain in this film which takes a talented director to do so. It is a shame that we don’t get to see his films in their full glory.

  • Nick Opfer

    I thought this film was very interesting given the time period it was released. I can’t help but wonder what the reception of the film would have been within the white community. A movie depicting whites as horrible people surely wouldn’t have been received very well. Regardless, I found the scenes with lynching and near rape to be pretty intense, especially for the time period. A true shame that Micheaux’s works haven’t been well preserved.

  • Derek Colon

    This film astonished me with how potentially divisive it was. The film was originally screened at a time where the content of this film would have been scoffed at. I wonder how scarily realistic the film was for those times. The near rape of the main female lead by her own blood I imagine would have been eye opening to say the least. How much content was cut from the original piece? I’ll never know but I wish I knew what the original piece looked like the whole way through in-cut. I loved this film, which says a lot because silent films aren’t really my cup of tea. Such a bummer that we will never know what the movie was intended to look like in the directors eye’s but at least I was able to watch most of it. Mad respect!

  • krusha patel

    The film had a classic early century storyline, based on how black people were treated specially in a small village area. It was a great film with a little romance, family issues, jealous friend, and the sad truth. Women were never treated equally and men were always ready to jump on them, and it also happened in the movie. There is a phrase that a lot of women use when men catcall them ” don’t you have mother and sisters”, saying so how would you feel if somebody did such a thing to your own mother or sister and in this case, she was his daughter which is even worse. It was really bummer that not a lot of the director’s films survives through the decades.

  • Flavio Torres

    Oscar Micheaux definitely took a lot of risks showing the harsh truth of what African Americans still went threw post civil war. I can understand why the censorship committee would cut out certain parts of the film because of the shame they felt. Especially with the lynching scenes where they purposely controlled the media to simply say “black man murdered, suspect still on the loose” to hide the lynchings from the rest of the country. I would have liked to see the scenes that were censored out to get the full story Micheaux told.

  • Neil Chisholm

    I have to give Oscar Micheaux much credit. Back one hundred years ago, the black people of America were really held down, there is no question about it. Hardly any white people had a notion of a black person being anything like their equal. Today it’s not perfect, there will always be prejudice, but as a race in this country, I believe the black people are doing much better; in some cases, like in sports and entertainment, outstanding.
    Back to Micheaux; this man had intelligence, drive, and ambition. That he could write his own stories, produce and direct his films, and be a one-man studio, was fantastic. And in doing so, he got authentic images and lives of his people up there on the screen, and did not do it to please white audiences. He really was a pioneer, and it must have been mighty difficult, with all the hardships of trying to make movies when you are a black man, and no doubt having to negotiate with prejudiced white people to do so.
    Furthermore, he did not have the benefit of anyone teaching him film techniques, he just apparently learned by looking at movies like “Birth of a Nation.” By the way, I saw that movie at Ripon College in 1969, and the black students turned out to heckle it, for which I could not fault them one bit, and their sarcastic comments were very funny. It was the one and only time I would excuse this behavior. As for “Within Our Gates,” it was melodramatic and full of excitement, with social commentary about the place of black people within American society. The very appealing actress Evelyn Preer was good as the often-persecuted heroine. I hope Micheaux made a good profit from this movie, and he must have, for he continued to make movies until his death in 1951. I would like to see more of these obscure little movies made by and for the black audiences.

  • Ethan Ng

    This movie was absolutely fascinating to watch. While I definitely did not consider it an “entertaining” film, it was both an informative and heart pounding film. By showing the film from the perspective of a black person, Oscar Michaeux had already created something different from the films of that time, but by showing the intensely graphic scenes, such as the lynching and near rape scene, he showed the harsh reality of being black in that time period.
    I like how your post compared this film to The Birth of a Nation, a film I was more familiar with but didn’t know about the comparisons to this film.

  • Christina

    Having access to the oldest known extant feature film by an African American director I think is an invaluable resource– in terms of studying the sociopolitical milieu as well as in terms of the filmmaking/directing aspects. There’s just so many different aspects one could focus on, so much to unpack beyond the most obvious plot elements– Old Ned’s betrayal of his “birthright” and the implications that has on religion’s impact on equal rights; Mrs. Stratton, the racist, misogynistic (and one could argue misanthropic) Southerner talking to Mrs. Warwick; Efram’s behavior and eventual lynching; Alma’s betrayal of Sylvia…

    No one is really spared from his social/political commentary. The medium of his commentary, Sylvia, is really the only character who goes without true criticism, as far as I could tell. And maybe Dr. Vivian. While making obvious commentary on the revisionist history Griffith presents, Micheaux does not refrain from shining light on what some in the African American community might consider his or her dirty laundry.

    In future, I would like to watch Birth of a Nation alongside Within Our Gates, the better to eavesdrop on the conversation Micheaux is having with D.W. Griffith. (While trying to find an answer to ‘within whose gates?’ the title is apparently inspired by a line from Birth of a Nation.) I feel like a poor student of history that I miss certain references, especially those provided by Dr. Vivian in the closing scene of the film. Part of my thinks his mentioning African American contributions to the war effort and saying that “[they] were never immigrants,” is a veiled criticism of Vivian’s self-held beliefs.

  • alex

    Within Our Gates was a very interesting movie. I wish that it has been in better condition and not cut up by censorship. It is a shame that there are not that many of his movies that have survived over the years. What I enjoyed about the movie was the other side of the story. We saw how African american’s were treated at the time. It brought a darker side to the story, and I am surprised that he had the courage to actually show some of the scenes in the movie. For example, the lynching scene was very disbursing, but I know why he did it. He needed to show the world and future generations what was really happening during the time. Hopefully, someone else finds one of his other movies in an old box somewhere in the world. I would really like to see more of his work.

  • Alex Sewielski

    As am amature historian I found Mischeaux’s work to an interesting primary source for African-American culture in the 1920s, especially since a lot of which would be lost to the ravages of time, and unfortunate censorship of the era. His story is in someways a complex narrative for silent films especially when it comes from an independent film maker as himself, and even more so the fact that he had to overcome racial biases a long with those issues. However, it is a testement to the spirit of independent film making, and also now an inspiration for myself. The film does have many rough spots, especially certain editing cuts, and some screenwriting choices that also show the rough and ready/inexperience of a diy film maker. Still a very interesting film.

  • Matt Fortune

    Within Our Gates was a very important and influential piece in which it really emphasized race. It demonstrated multiple qualities and aspect in which are typically ignored or irrelevant in other works of art and or films. I believe this work of art inspired multiple people to make and represent a totally new outlook on films. Encouraging producers to get out of their comfort zone and stop riding the wave of films making its own wave of films. This was a very strong article with lots of passion as well as the film. Very intriguing to read about.

  • Adam M

    Watching “Within Our Gates” was an interesting experience, since this is the first full-length silent film I have ever seen. (If you don’t count the shorts and the Charlie Chaplin Films). It would have been interesting to see the original print of the movie. The censorship laws made it necessary to cut down and in some cases remove entire scenes, as it said on one of the dialog cards. The main reason I say this, is because there are scenes where I was a bit confused. For example, when the character is dreaming, or is remembering something that happened in the past. Also when you said there was one scene that was very obvious where it was cut, I can see what you are talking about. The edits happen so fast that it caught me off guard. While the story was relatively easy to follow, this is one of those films that I need to watch a second time to understand certain scenes better.
    The Secret History of Chicago Movies paper that I read, prior to watching the movie, helped to give me the overall picture of what was happening in the story. Flashbacks are so much smoother now than they were in this film, which caused some of my confusion.
    In some scenes Evelyn Preer’s hair appeared light brown and in others it appeared dark brown. It was difficult to pick her out in the next scene with other women unless she was wearing the same outfit or hat. There were many crooks to keep track of, however at least one bad guy had a mustache. There were also too many different men vying for Sylvia’s attention. I still think she felt she would have been happier with her first love. The movie did not show the blacks or the whites in a good light. There were good and bad on each side. There were two white men shot, one black boy shot, and three black people hung. All of the killing was done by the white people. The black people were victims of their color. This is the racism that Micheaux was trying to depict.

  • Madeline Morse

    After watching Within Our Gates I have a much better idea of why it was such a risk to put it on the big screen. As I was watching, I kept thinking about how the movie could be remade in the present day and would still be relevant. I was also thinking, if someone came to my door trying to sell a novel or film, I wouldn’t have. Which I believe shows Micheaux must have been such a confident and determined person. I felt the story line of the film was engaging and intriguing. I wasn’t sure the philanthropist was going to follow through with giving Sylvia the money for the school after the advice she was given from her friend. Given the story line and the time period it was released I understand more of why Micheaux decided to go with an extremely patriotic ending which I felt was a little odd. But, as previously discussed he had to soften the blow in a sense in order to get the film out to the public. As my first full-length silent film, I was definitely more emotionally invested than I expected to be.

  • Michael Parlich

    This film, Within Our Gates, to me is a movie that would will begin to understand the importance of as you get further into the film. When it had started I was not super excited about it because I didn’t think it was going to be very entertaining, but that’s not what it was supposed to be. As I got to the end of the film I realized how difficult the film could have been to produce during that time period. One thing I can say about the film in general is that I felt it jumped around a lot. It almost felt like it could be two films in one once Sylvias story starts. To me there were a lot of different edits that made you think about what had just happened. Overall, I think the message this film has is very strong and there’s a reason it is still around to this day.

  • Kevin Paramby

    Watching Within Our Gates was a different experience for me. Normally, the films I’ve seen in this class so far have made me question the concepts and abstract ideas from directors and how they tell a larger message about society. In this film, not only did Oscar Micheaux take us back to the ’20s and give us an idea of what it looked like physically, he let us enter the thoughts and moral choices of the complex characters in the film. Not to mention the varying types of music for the different scenes and how they intertwine within one another and syncs up with a scene. The music here has different instruments played at different tones to present the emotion and mimic that with how the characters were feeling. Dark scenes would be accompanied by loud, almost ethereal music and vice versa. The bigger theme of this movie is that of colored people struggling to fit in with a white man’s world where over 60 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. Even though African Americans are free, they are still very much treated like dirt and are lynched by white mobs often. This is what Micheaux delivered in this film. How unruly the repercussions of being black and the strong consequences they have to pay just because they’re black. Even though the world now is better than the world back in the ’20s for colored people, racism still exists and there are still white supremacist rallies that spread hate to people of all sorts. This film holds up simply because of that and how relevant it was back then and now. Micheaux and crew were extremely brave to release this type of film back in those trying times where lynching was common and black people were treated like animals. Efrem also being lynched by the mob makes sense when you look at the history of the time period and how these mobs would just find any excuse to lynch an African American. It makes you wonder if there’ll be any more major changes 100 years from now for colored people or if it’ll get worse.

  • Arpad F

    Within Our Gates shows how cinema is a form of commentary. Films can change ideas and be lessons for controversial topics. The story for Within Our Gates is nothing like Birth of a Nation but there are contrasting and opposite scenes. Where the Klan are seen as the heroes and are justified, Within Our Gates flips the roles and shows how whites are the real villains. The film shows how with good story telling, propaganda can become useless. Characters reacting and behaving as they do show how treating blacks as equals to whites is beneficial to society. Films like this will constantly be made by whoever is being oppressed. Stories about success and revealing how the enemy really act will never die out

  • kam hermez

    Within our Gates follows a theme that is still relevant today while stepping inside our very own time machine and seeing what the 1920’s were like for black men and women. This film was incredibly powerful and eye opening through the real portrayal of treatment and depictions of African Americans in film prior to Within Our Gates. Micheauxs work ethic and drive before shooting the film led him to having a voice to the African American people through his incredible art of creating stories. Micheaux exposed the ugly truth in America following the production of Within Our Gates; even though African American people were free to do the things they wanted to do, there was still racial violence, segregation, and discrimination. The film kept me intruded even after it was done and i seemed to be asking myself “why on Earth is this not taught in history classes?” The absolute truth and heartache that this movie uncovers showed the world both sides of Chicago and America in the 1920’s. Even though this was shot in the 20’s, it feels so much more modern than it is because racism is still alive today and doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon. overall, i thought the film was very powerful and deserves to be shown more widespread today to really help open the eyes of the ignorant.

  • FW

    Okay, first things first: were you lucky enough to be present to see this:

    If not, do you know of it? Off the chain, comrade–in ALL ways and 4ever.

    Second things second: I am really distraught that we did not get to experience this film in our OCC screening room–projected on the big screen in a room full of interested and interesting students. But, that’s the weigh of the Covid 19 whirled–what’s a cineaste to do?

    Third things third: nice to read the first half of your powerful postscript to -Flickering Empire-; however, something still grates and I cannot relate. I wonder if it is some sort of film studies professorial orientation to -Birth of a Nation-, for I’ve often seen this sort of minimization before: “the movie’s [Birth of a Nation’s] unfortunate racism.” Oh dear! It’s the use of the modifier “unfortunate” before racism that is birthing my schism. Time to shine whiteness through a syntax prism and refract the facts from the vast tracts of historical lies in order to help your audience realize what the funk has always gone on all along the watchtower starting with the seat of power (peep here

    https://www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film

    to read of movie theater ushers in kkk sheets after the film was given the stamp of approval by another president who was a sign of the times ain’t ever really changing).

    Fourth things go forth: loved your zoomed introduction to the class in which you set the historical scene of Chicago, post-1919 race riots. Thinking of the milieu from which Micheaux birthed his own D(isrupt) W(hiteness) Gryphon really helped this viewer appreciate the Oscar-worthy act of heroism and vision that -Within Our Gates- was in his post-Great Migration white supremacist nation.

    I wish you peace, MG–dare to struggle; dare to win.

    • michaelgloversmith

      I missed REBIRTH OF A NATION but I would love to see it. I like DJ Spooky! I’m not sure I understand your objection to the phrase “unfortunate racism” in relation to BIRTH OF A NATION. Do you feel that it’s redundant?

  • Gary Quinones

    Upon watching this film I found myself enthralled by it. I’m really astonished by how much emotion I was able to feel by it and by the performers in the film. In particular, Evelyn Preer as Sylvia Landry. What she goes through in the film is remarkable and the way in which Micheaux shows us is truly a work of art. The fact that this film is from 1920 makes it even more special. He gives us a glimpse of what life was like back then and amazingly it still rings true today.

    Sylvia deals with so much throughout the film. I was taken back by the amount of calamity that befalls her. Of course the film climax as you mention makes quite a statement, but even when we see how Conrad reacts to seeing Sylvia speak with another man. He basically chokes her. What is worse is that it was set up so that Conrad would see it. Then she gets robbed by a person who on the surface seems nice. The fact that because of that Sylvia would be on the path to a happy ending is just poetic.

    Even with all that happens to her she never ever stops trying to be the best person she is. A perfect example is when she saves the child from being hit by a car owned by Elena Warwick. Again this act leads to a very good thing. In a world filled with racism and social issues she is still able to overcome all of this. With this film, Micheaux shows so much about the and the strength of the human spirit. Even though this may be “incomplete” it is still a masterpiece. To think this was “lost” for so long. I truly hope one day his other “lost films are found.

  • Leizbeth Martinez

    I was surprised at how although this is a silent film, so much emotion was still expressed. Aware that this film was made in 1920, I didn’t expect to experience so many examples of the damage racism can do to a person, in this case, Sylvia. Within this hour-long movie, there are so many powerful scenes involving love, betrayal, murder, lynching, and bigotry. This film must be one of the first examples to show the hardships the black community went through to live and have simply a chance for opportunity. I thought the film to be quite powerful in many aspects especially with the character Old Ned who had to go against his own race and make a fool of himself in order to get support from the white people. When Sylvia tells her life story to Dr. Vivian, the film is able to sympathize with Sylvia. This technique within the film production to be made in 1920 is surprising!

  • Pawel Krempasky

    I’ve never really seen an entire silent film until the point, but now I have, and I can say that it is a very different act of watching. You really need to be observant and patient. I probably struggled to follow the movie because its lack of sound. I found myself getting distracted more easily and trying to turn the volume up on my laptop. I feel like its normal nowadays to almost have two devices while watching something. You got the TV playing your movie, and the phone in your hand scrolling through social media or wherever else your mind wanders. I found myself picking up my phone less than if this movie had sound because I actually had to follow what was on screen and couldn’t just assume what was going on with just the audio.

    I was shocked to see how well of a narrative the story actually had, even without sound. This was my first experience to a full silent movie, yet there is still a a narrator in the form of notecards and stuff. When they were playing poker in the beginning, the narrator told us “Red, a professional gambler,” so we still understood what was going on. Whenever there was important dialogue, they would find a way to put it in a note form. I saw a big change in how long text in on screen. Nowadays if there is text on screen, it seems like they expect us to read it in seconds. I think the audience had a lot more time to read the cue cards and text back then, versus now. They almost sometimes rush text now, just because well pick up the same thing with the audio.

    One part that confused me was the poker scene I just mentioned. One minute they’re playing poker and Red is dealing. The next, Red gets caught cheating, they get out of their seats, pull their guns out, and then it cuts to people outside running in or out or someplace that does not look like the poker table setting. I understand that the tape is old and not in its original state, but this scene was hard to follow for me. I wish it was scenes like these that had audio and another narrative to ease up some confusion.

    Overall, I don’t think I will watch any more full silent films, but it still remained pretty good overall. I’m not saying that silent movies are bad, but they’re just not my speed. Give me sound and a soundtrack and I’ll be set. One thing I kept wondering throughout the film was “has anyone gone back and put audio and/or dialogue over these movies?” I get that it’ll change the way the director wanted it shot and produced, but I think it’d be very interesting to see how someone would do so. I’m not saying it’d be good but it would definitely be cool to see.

  • Ethan Lavaccare

    Within Our Gates is an important note in film history. While this film has some clear budgetary restrictions, it is amazing that an African-American filmmaker was able to make a film of this scale at the time. This film has its issues, the story structure is strikingly unusual, the complex plot requires lots of reading through title cards, and the makeup can be off-putting. However, this film delivers an important message that was not being delivered at the time.

    This film is an important look into racism in the early 1900s. While films like The Birth of A Nation portray African-Americans as violent, this film does the opposite. Every white Southerner in the film is shown to be a racist. The angry mob in the climax even kills an innocent black man who was trying to help them because they are so bloodthirsty. The imagery makes you wonder how this film was ever approved during its time.

    Oscar Micheaux had little money and few resources, but he kept on making films because he had a passion and he knew his voice was just as important as anyone else’s. Even though he didn’t get the broad recognition at the time, it is nice to know we still remember Micheaux, despite many of his films being lost.

    Films like Within Our Gates are so important because they show us a side of things that we don’t usually see. Major studios give us a biased outlook on racism at the time. A film like this shows us a side of the story that could only be told through independent film-making at the time. Today, Within Our Gates serves as a necessary reminder of the racism that was still occurring in the 1910s and 20s.

  • Elliott Perlow

    This was my first full length silent film that ive watched and i wasnt sure what to expect but the story line in this film was really alarming for me. It was a film that i really had to pay attention too. Fortunately, the text screens display for an appropiately longer amount of time than im used to seeing before.

    I found it interesting the way it was filmed from one angle to the next and i felt that each of those moments were a decision by the editor. The way the actors used body language was very exaggerated to help explain the story in silence, although it was still mostly very natural to me. Weve seen silent comedies before where the body movements were exaggerated in a way that made it seem staged and fake. It was an eye catching difference between silent comedy and drama to me.

    Some of the parts were hard to follow like when everyones running around fleeing the scene because its hard to identify the characters in the heat of that moment, but it balances out for purposely being a fast paced scene. Also, i found it ironic that some parts didnt have text screens for what they were depicting, even though there were lots of them in different parts.

    A fun detail I enjoyed from the screenwriting was the part where the african american boy escaped the wild crowd who was attempting to capture and lynch the people. He faked them out twice! First, by getting out of the circle of people to take off the rope, and after he ran and they shot at him, he faked getting struck by the bullet, only to steal the white man’s horse and escape. Super duper clever, and something ive honestly always wanted to see in a movie.

    Overall, i was glad to see this film as a first full length silent film because it seemed very unique, and in a way, timeless. I thought the way it was produced was pretty brilliant and all of the actors depicted emotions and reactions very well, depicting a quick and action packed story in a more flowy and natural way.

  • stevefutran

    Within Our Gates was a film that was ahead of its time. It has a triple purpose. The first was to a rebuttal to Birth of the Nation. Secondly, it wanted to point out the stereotypes of Blacks that whites premoted. Finally it pointed out the usually way that Blacks denied justice under the white legal system.

    For every stereotyped character, there is one that is a positive one. You have Larry who is a thief and liar. But you have Dr. Vivian who is educated and honest. Sylvia’s fiance Conrad, walks out on Sylvia and runs off with another woman. Mrs Warwick has negative view of blacks. She promotes the idea that giving money to black schools is a waste of money. Mrs. Stratton shares an optimistic view and gives money to Sylvia. The attempted rape of Sylvia rebutts the idea that blacks want to rape white women. Sylvia”s father stands up to Gridlestone, whereas Emil, his servant takes alot of personal abuse lying down.

    Micheaux points out that Blacks were denied equal protection under the law in the south. Sylvia’s father, was judge guilty by a white mob. He is not offered the opportunity to tell what happened when Gridlestone was killed. Efrem is lynched by the mob, when he did nothing wrong. Innocene and guilt is shared by both races. Some of the actors are light skinned blacks. The idea viewed that the more you look white, the more justice you might receive.

    Racism is just a project of one race’s fears onto another less powerful race.

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