Directed by Oscar Micheaux • 1920 • United States
Starring Evelyn Preer, William Starks, Mattie Edwards
WITHIN OUR GATES is the earliest surviving feature film by an African American director. It was Oscar Micheaux’s second film (after 1919’s THE HOMESTEADER, now lost), centering on an idealistic young woman named Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer, one of the first great stars of the race film) who attempts to raise money for an elementary school for black children. In the course of navigating the racial politics of both the black and white communities, Sylvia’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks that contain the film’s most notorious sequence: the lynching of her parents by a white mob. Micheaux’s staging of the scene is startling in its bluntness and speaks volumes about the director’s fearlessness and willingness to address taboo subject matter. The film touches upon other themes that would recur throughout the controversial filmmaker’s career, such as the promise of rural life vs. the corrupting influence of the city, and the use of religion as a means of misleading the black community.
Professor and film scholar Charles Musser provides an overview of the career of the radical, trailblazing black director Oscar Micheaux (whose work is featured in “Pioneers of African American Cinema”), including the reasons behind the limited accessibility to his oeuvre.