Sunday, September 20, 2009

09. Within Our Gates (1920)

Running Time: 79 minutes
Directed By: Oscar Micheaux
Written By: Oscar Micheaux
Main Cast: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, William Smith

A PIONEER FILM IN THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA

Sidenote: The inter-library loan that I had out on this title finally came through and I knock off a movie from the "Unfound Files". As another quick note, this title is coming all the way from Lock Haven, PA from Stevenson Library at Lock Haven University.

Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving film directed by an African American. That African American is Oscar Micheaux and the film he's made is not only historically significant, but also not a bad movie either.

Our tale starts with Sylvia Landry, a black educator, heading North to visit her cousin, Alma. At the time Sylvia is engaged to Conrad, a man for whom Alma also has eyes for. Alma's brother-in-law, Larry is also in love with Sylvia, but alas Sylvia is in love with Conrad and has no interest in Larry. Confused yet? No? Okay...let's keep rolling.

Conrad sends word that he's on his way back from Brazil, where he's been working, but the letter is intercepted by Alma and instead of giving her the letter she arranges for Sylvia to be caught in a compromising situation with another man, and when Conrad finally returns and sees Sylvia, thinking she's with another man, storms off and heads back to Brazil, calling off the engagement.

From there, Sylvia decides to leave the North and head South to the Piney Woods school, a school for black children, where she meets Rev. Jacobs, the man who runs the school. She's happy there, but the funds for the school are rapidly running short and the school is in threat of being closed. Sylvia, wanting to help the school, heads back North in search of someone, anyone who would be willing to donate money to the struggling Piney Woods.

While trying to save a child from being hit by a car, Sylvia herself is struck by the vehicle and put in the hospital. It is here that she meets the driver of the car, an old, rich, kind hearted woman, who upon hearing her story, generously agrees to donate Piney Woods the sum of $50,000. Sylvia sends word back to the South, to Rev. Jacobs, not to close the school that funds are on the way, and once healed up, heads back to the South, to continue her work as a teacher.

The film concludes with Alma repenting for the evil that she's done, in causing Conrad to leave town and putting Sylvia in a compromising situation. She spills everything to Dr. Vivian, a man who fell in love with Sylvia while she was in the North in search of donations. She tells Dr. Vivian the story of Sylvia's family and how when Sylvia was still in school, her father was framed for the murder of a wealthy, white man and lynched for his "crime".

Prior to seeing Within Our Gates, I suspected the only reason that it made it into the book, was because it was of such historical value, being one of the first films directed by a black man. But, upon seeing it, I realized that it also had legs other than it's historical ones. This film weaved together so many details: the love triangle of Sylvia, Alma and Conrad, the Piney Woods school and it's search for money, the story of Sylvia and the murder of her family, and did it so gracefully as this film flowed very well and left me satisfied. There were a few down moments, and nothing but the plot really stuck out as outstanding, but all in all I'd call this a score in the good movies column.

RATING:
6/10 My original knee jerk reaction of a rating. This film was the answer to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and it certainly, in my opinion, was much better.

NEXT UP:
Korkarlen/The Phantom Carriage...which I still can't find.

Revised on September 30, 2009 5:07pm

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