Thursday, February 4, 2021

Race Month: Within Our Gates

Within Our Gates

In 1915 D. W. Griffith made an innovative film, a landmark achievement in cinema. In what can only be called Griffith’s masterpiece, he pioneered a variety of techniques that would become standard in filmmaking such as close-ups, tracking shots, parallel action sequences, and cross-cutting. It was a financial blockbuster, and some argue that if inflation is taken into account, it still may be the most profitable film ever made. 

This film, The Birth of a Nation, had the support of Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, who chose it as the first film to be screened in the White House. The Democrat president is said to have described the film as “like writing history in lightning.” (Wilson had another connection to the film -- the book the film was based on, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., was dedicated to Wilson.)

Sadly, this undeniably accomplished work of cinema was made in the service of a story that ridiculed all African Americans as stupid, lustful, and dangerous. It celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, even glorifying murderous lynching.

Through the years, African American filmmakers have rightfully responded to this racist classic with films of their own.  Nate Parker used the same title, The Birth of a Nation, for his 2016 work about Nat Turner’s slave revolt, and Spike Lee used excerpts from the  1915 film for his 2018 docudrama, BlacKKKlansman.

But long before either of these films were made, a pioneering filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, responded to The Birth of a Nation with his 1920 film, Within Our Gates

Oscar Micheaux

Micheaux was a pioneer in almost every sense of the word. Born in Illinois, son of a former slave, he moved to South Dakota during his twenties to become a farmer and homesteader. These life experiences led him to become a writer and eventually a filmmaker. His first film, The Homesteader (which he directed and wrote based on his own novel, The Conquest) was based on his experiences in the West. It even featured a prominent role for a minister -- so we at Movie Churches would love to write about it -- but sadly. the film has been lost. No prints of the film have been preserved.

In fact, today's film, Within Our Gates, is the oldest existing "race film" made by African Americans and featuring African Americans. It was almost lost as well until a print was found in Spain. The original title cards were lost, so preservationists needed to translate the Spanish cards into English (leaving out some of the cards which provided the cultural context of American life.)

It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film, and it's a harsh critique of American racism and particularly lynching. Within Our Gates even opens with a rather sarcastic title card, “At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist -- though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.”

It tells the story of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer, or as the opening credits read, “the renowned Negro artist Evelyn Preer”), a woman who leaves the perils of living in the South to be with her cousin Alma in the North. But her cousin betrays her, and Sylvia returns to the South. There she meets the Reverend Wilson Jacobs, principal of Piney Woods School and “founder of the school and apostle of education for the black race.”

There certainly are challenges to running the school. A title card informs us that Piney Woods School is in a “land where lynching reigns supreme.” Wilson takes in all black students, even though most can’t pay the fees for the school. The pastor admits, “The colored people who live here are too poor to help us.” He tells Sylvia that the state pays “$1.49 a year to educate each Negro child.”

Sylvia decides to help Jacobs and his school, saying, “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition. I am going up north where I’ll try to raise the money we need. May God be with us!” This makes the Reverend slam his fist on his desk and shake her hand.

In the North we see Dr. V. Vivian (Charles Lucas) reading a copy of The Literary Digest with Teddy Roosevelt on the cover. An article in the digest reads, “Rev. Thurston has begun an active campaign for the education of the black race. He asks that the federal government contribute significantly so that Negro children in all of the United States can receive proper instruction. He called on senators and congressmen…”

This doctor meets Sylvia and comes to her aid when she's the victim of a purse snatching. Sylvia meets Elena Warwick, a wealthy, white philanthropist who is willing to contribute to the Piney Woods School until her friend, another rich woman named Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd) tells Miss Warwick she would be wasting her money. Mrs. Stratton says educating "blacks, lumberjacks, and fieldhands" would be a mistake, because "it would only give them a headache. Send the money to Old Ned, the best colored preacher in the world who will do more to keep them in their place.”

We see Old Ned in the pulpit. He preaches, “The text of my sermon this morning will be ‘Abraham and the Fatted Calf.’ Behold I foresee the black people will be first and the whites will be the last. While the white people with all their schooling and wealth and education won’t make it to heaven. While our race, lacking these vices and whose souls are more pure, most all will ascend to Heaven! Hallelujah!” Those in the congregation that aren’t asleep, nod in agreement.

Old Ned then takes his offering, “And now my brethren and sisteren, I request a small contribution. But before acceptin’ your offering, I want to relate a deplorable instance that happened while we was in intimate conversation with our Lord. Somebody has stolen money from our offering plate. I will not dispute the matter, but whoever took it, must give it back!” A number of men come forward and put money in the plate.

In the next scene, we see Old Ned visit a small group of rich white men. One says to him, “Listen here, Uncle Ned, you’re a good ol’ colored man. What do you make of this?” He shows Ned a newspaper article. 

“It’s about the Negroes’ right to vote. We are all in favor of your people -- but we can’t be havin’ Negroes voting." 

“Y’all knows what I always preach," Old Ned says. "This is a land for the white man and black folk got to know their place. Let the white man go to Hell with his politics, wealth, and sins. Give me Jesus!”

The white men clap. “Leave it to me, gen’men, I always preach that vices and sins of the white folk will end them in Hell. When the Judgement Day comes, more Negroes than whites will rise up to Heaven.”  Ned concludes. One of the men kicks Old Ned on the seat of his pants, and Ned laughs and says, “White people is mighty fine!”

But when we see Old Ned alone, he’s saying something quite different, “Again I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage.’ Negroes and whites -- all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, Hell is my destiny.”

Back in his office, Dr. Sydney is reading, “The Negro is a human being. His nature is not different from other human nature. Thus, we must recognize his rights as a human being, this is the teaching of Christianity.”

Sylvia raised money for the school, and she finds romance. And we learn something about her history. Her black adoptive parents were lynched in the South, and she was nearly raped by a white man. The film clearly inverts the good guys and the bad guys from The Birth of a Nation.

But here at Movie Churches, we're here to look at churches and clergy. Though the Reverend Jacobs has noble goals of education, he’s rather a wimp and would be hopeless without the help of Sylvia. Old Ned is a much sadder case, telling his people to give up hoping for anything good in this world and wait for the sweet by and by. That's quite different from the gospel of Jesus. Jesus promises heaven to come, but there's work in this world as well: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” This is closer to Rev. Jacobs, and the polar opposite of the “gospel” of Old Ned.

I was impressed with the bold nature of Oscar Micheaux’s work, but the pastors in his film average out to a meager Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

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