Saturday, 8 October 2011

Within Our Gates

That Within Our Gates should exist at all is pretty remarkable. How did a film like this come to be made at the time it did (1920)? And such high quality despite being low budget and way off grid in mainstream terms. Within Our Gates is a race movie, a sub genre reflecting the apartheid of segregation, which meant that blacks and whites couldn't go to the same cinemas and blacks had to make films for and financed within their community. Like so many very early movies, it was thought lost until 1993 when a single copy turned up in Spain, from which the present restoration was made.  Despite its period, it's remarkably well shot and well preserved. and worth watching, because i's the earliest existing film that deals unflinchingly with racism in the US.  A lot of race movies were pretty camp (like Son of Ingagi, full of private in-jokes) but this is sophisticated, better than many mainstream movies of the time.

Within Our Gates was made by Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), a self-made man whose intelligence overcame his lack of money and conventional education.  His movies followed on from his books, which dealt analytically with situations facing black people at the time. The protagonist, Sylvia Landry, is an aspirational figure, whose education has been paid for by a secret donor, though she was brought up by poor sharecroppers. She goes up north to raise money for a school for black kids. The plot is complicated by love interests, which serve to show different ways of being black, but revolves around Sylvia's past. Because she is educated, she helps her parents manage their money so they don't get exploited by the evil boss, Philip Gridlestone, who preys on poor whites and blacks, and is hated by all.  Throughout the film, Michaeux is even-handed and fair: neither race has a monopoly on good or bad, all people are fundamentally equal, what they do with their lives isn't defined by race. Hence the dodgy pastor, the crook Conrad and Efram, Gridlestone's servant, who thinks he can win favour with whites by betraying blacks.

Sylvia's stepfather Jasper goes to Gridlestone with proper accounts so he can't be ripped off, but Gridlestone is shot through the window by a white sharecropper whom Gridlestone has cheated in the past.  Knowing he won't get a fair trial, Jasper and the family run off to hide in the swamp, while the mob hunts them down. Eventually both Jasper and his wife are lynched, and their bodies burned. It's shockingly graphic, particularly hard to watch as such things really did happen all the time: perhaps some of this drawn from real life. The mob even try to lynch Emil, Jasper's son, who is about 10, but he escapes by playing dead when the mob shoot at him, and then steals a horse. Will he get away? While all this is happening, Sylvia gets raped by Armand, Gridlestone's brother. Is this the earliest realistic race rape scene on film? Armand only stops when he sees that Sylvia has a scar on her body. She's his natural daughter. He's the one who paid for her to go to school. So maybe he's not completely evil, either.

There are some bizarrely stilted scenes, such as the one where Doctor Vivian asks Sylvia to marry him, by reciting a long list of battles in which US soldiers fought, from Cuba under Roosevelt to Mexico and Europe. "You should be proud of your country", he says. Perhaps there's still footage missing, or the sole copy was adapted for the Spanish market. Nonetheless, it's still a gripping movie because of its even-handed analysis of the political and economic realities everyone, white or black, is caught up in.  Efram, for example, is also lynched even though he tries to be accepted by whites and didn''t commit any crime. The white sharedropper who shot Gridlestone gets killed by mistake during the hunt for Jasper. Implicitly, the film is saying, nothing's fair, but you make what you can of your life, whoever you are. Notice how many white actors there are, working for a black producer and director in a film that hardly glorifies the white South.
Please also read this thought provoking article about race hate in Little Rock, 1953.  And how some things aren't easily wiped away.

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