I didn’t know that there were African American directors in the silent era, let alone that some of their films survive. Yay for the Internet Archive!
Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates is the oldest surviving film by an African American director. It came out five years after an Australian silent film of the same name (now lost) that covered a much different sort of conflict.
Per Rotten Tomatoes, the only surviving print was found in a Spanish archive and its titles had to be retranslated back into English from Spanish. Also, according to historian F. Fitzhugh Brundage, this print is probably not the original complete version, which may explain some of the choppiness. However, there is also a dreamy, PTSD-like feel to it that also accounts for the story’s nonlinearity.
It is told through Sylvia’s viewpoint, after all, and she has been through some horrific experiences.
I wonder if the film’s ending is meant to be ambiguous. Where does Sylvia go after she walks off into the rainy night? Why has Alma repented and why is she now talking so frankly to a doctor who has to “find” Sylvia?
Is it the rather flimsy plot explanation or is there something deeper going on that Micheaux isn’t showing? It could be both – this is the sort of impressionistic film that can have multiple layers of meaning.
What a powerful and fascinating movie!
Controversial and Violent
Also, I didn’t know that a silent film could be rated “R” in modern times, but that’s how I’m going to rate Within Our Gates for its graphic violence as well as frank treatment of some themes that are still controversial today.
This means WordPress is going to ask for your birthday before letting you watch the video below.
I could have just linked the YouTube version, but I think the warning is necessary, particularly because of the lynching and rape scenes, as well as the political incorrectness of some parts of this that could seriously offend some viewers.
Count yourself lucky – in 1920, they flat-out censored it, which is why this surviving print is probably an incomplete version.