Within Our Gates
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For many years, Oscar Micheaux's 1920 feature, Within Our Gates, was considered a lost film until a copy was discovered in the Spanish Film Archive in Madrid in 1990. Dubbed in Spanish and titled La Negra, the film was restored by the Smithsonian Institute after being unavailable for 72 years. Some sources have stated that the film was based on the Leo M. Frank murder case; other references have said Oscar Micheaux's 1921 film The Gunsaulus Mystery was a re-edited version of Within Our Gates. We know these claims are inaccurate but, for the record, here is a brief synopsis of the existing film: After a successful harvest, black sharecropper Jasper Landry prepares a bill for plantation owner Philip Girdlestone. Eph, a local gossip and troublemaker, visits Girdlestone and warns him that Landry plans to educate his children and will not compromise on the payment he expects to receive from the plantation owner. When Landry calls on Girdlestone, he is rudely dismissed but is later accused of his murder by Eph when the plantation owner is discovered dead in his home.
Within Our Gates stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained a scene in which a black man is lynched by a white mob. At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform. Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protestors against the film were black activists.
Not surprisingly, white theatre owners in the south who catered to black patronage were also offended by Within Our Gates and refused to book it. One theatre owner in Shreveport, Louisiana, admitted "it was a very dangerous picture to show in the south" and his comment was typical for the region.
Micheaux, no stranger to controversy, refused to compromise his material despite being locked out of numerous distribution channels and went on to tackle other unpopular but equally topical problems in films like God's Stepchildren (1938), in which a light-skinned black tries to pass for white, and Birthright (1939), the story of a black Harvard graduate who encounters opposition from both whites and members of his own race. While Micheaux was well aware that audiences wanted to be entertained, he also felt it was his duty to confront challenging issues that would, in his words, "leave an impression" on audiences.
Director/Producer: Oscar Micheaux
Screenplay: Oscar Micheaux
Music: Philip Carli
Cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Flo Clements (Alma Prichard), James D. Ruffin (Conrad Drebert), Jack Chenault (Larry Prichard), William Smith (Detective Philip Gentry), Charles D. Lucas (Dr. V Vivian), Bernice Ladd (Mrs. Geraldine Stratton).
by Jeff Stafford