Continuing on with another dip into the 1001 Films Which I’m Not Sure I’ll See All Of Before I Die (am I being too pessimistic?), we come to this most rare of films, Within Our Gates. When you have to buy the film off eBay, and it comes on a plain white DVD in a plastic case with no cover art whatsoever and the DVD is lifted off a video from 1989, you kind of know a film is rare.
However, I’m glad I tracked it down. Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving African-American film in America, and offers a really interesting glimpse – not just into African-American film – but into independent filmmaking at the time.
In 1919, when this came out, DW Griffith would have been cranking out his expensive melodramas for the white audiences. Meanwhile, there would have been cheaper films coming out covering topics that were important to other segments of the country.
The film this reminds me of most is the recent Precious, which again features a distinctively African-American story, not just for entertainment, but as an encouragement for African-Americans. This was clearly the aim of Within Our Gates as well. It aims to show these audiences the real social issues they were facing, while at the same time, offering them hope for the future.
As a story, the film is a bit basic and doesn’t work so well. It follows a black woman, Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) from the Southern states and seems to move through three broad sections, for no particular reason. It starts with a sort of romantic melodrama as she visits her cousin in the north and waits for her fiancé to visit her. However, her cousin gets jealous and manages to instigate a break-up.
After this bit of soap, the film then shifts to Sylvia trying to raise money for a school for black children in the deep south, and the prejudices she runs into while trying to raise said money.
Then, in a third section, Sylvia’s new love interest talks to the rat cousin from the first part of the movie, who tells Sylvia’s back story. This then launches the most confronting parts of the movie, as we are confronted by racism and lynching.
Overall, I thought the whole thing was a bit chaotic and didn’t hold together well as a film. But the issues that the film raised were really fascinating, and would have been immensely relevant to audiences at the time. For me, the most tragic part of all was a character called Old Ned, a black preacher who would hype his excitable congregation up about Heaven and the afterlife – so that they never questioned the hardship and lack of education that they were going through now.
I guess I’d always liked to think of Christianity as a blessing of sorts to African-Americans, and to realise that it was also used as a force to keep them from questioning the status quo was quite sad. It also raises an issue that atheists have been confronting us with for a while – our current brand of Christianity seems to be all about ignoring this life in favour of one after death, thus making us not care at all about what’s going on in the world around us. It’s certainly a far cry from traditional Christianity which both deeply cared about the world and looked forward to a better one.
So overall, Within Our Gates doesn’t hold up so well as a story, but anyone with an interest in the social issues of the day or African-American cinema should check this out.