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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.

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About michaelgloversmith

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

14 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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