Within our Gates (1920)
Wow. Silent Steve blew me out of my assumptions with this one. Ignorance is a terrible thing, eh? Old Jack, for instance, hadn’t even considered that black American directors hadn’t been there from the start. After the story of Alice Guy, and her rather crass exclusion from film history, who’d be surprised to discover the name Oscar Mischeaux and his terrific work in the 1920s and 1930s, producing pointed films for a black American audience? Well, there’s another assumption: perhaps for an audience of everybody, but looking to tell the story of ordinary black lives, how they mattered then, and how the racism of D.W.Griffith‘s work – or even the Hollywood norm of maids and mammies – was a load of wildly offensive and, worse, destructive bollocks. This old, frail, straight-white-male watched this film with his ignorance alarms going full blast and – fuck off to the virtue signals – a dash of shame. Things, as with any nation, family or social group, are very different Within Our Gates…
Mischeaux was a properly terrific film maker. He worked in silents, moved with grace to talkies, and kept his finger on the normality and simple humanity of the lives he examined. But he wasn’t scared of using his craft to shock. Old Jack here was entertained enough by the plotting of Within Our Gates, what with it showing off things new to me, but the final reel. Fucking hell…I wonder who’d claim to be influenced by Mischeaux’s style.
Ok. Meet Sylvia Landry, played by Evelyn Preer with the familiar quaintness of the time. Well, until that final reel, when she earns the first should’ve-been Oscar before the things were invented…
Sylvia lives in a world of the Ku Klux Klan (horrible), Jim Crow (worse), casual lynchings, rapes and uncontestable violence (can you imagine being perceived as a dismissible caricature…to death?). What lands for old Jack in this – of all things – silent movie, is how normal is Sylvia’s world. Women love men, they flirt and chase, they know good people, they avoid bad people. The migration of black people from the South of the USA to the North looks like the chasing of freedom and the opportunity to sail up the classes, but with hope transgressed by casual not explicit racism. The inept as the balance to the murderous. So – yikes – what a wonderless world.
Sylvia visits her cousin Alma in the North. She waits for promised love, Conrad, to come back from Brazil. Alma is jealous, tricks Conrad into thinking Sylvia a bit of a slapper, which he reacts to by a bit of angry strangulation. Really – domestic horror. Preer portrays Sylvia’s shock and post-throttling despair with silent-movie grace. Flo Clements gives Alma rather more clunky posing and pantomime than you’d want. James D Ruffin as Conrad…well, there’s a contained pain about him, an introvert wounded. But you’ve got to wonder how this would play in a modern movie, the apparently spited man going, literally, for the woman’s throat…
So Sylvia goes back home, only returning after meeting a priest who needs cash – and a lot, and urgently – to maintain a school for black kids. The mission makes a race point and a decency point that keeps Sylvia’s character to the fore. This is the work of a good person, a decent soul, and not an animalistic, Griffithian caricature. So, weirdly to the modern eye, in a movie from long ago, a black woman is presented simply as a good person. With agency.
Things go a bit far, mind, when she heads to Boston and gets hit by a car trying while saving a child from being run over. She wakes in hospital to the oddly credited Mrs Evelyn as Elena Warwick: loaded philanthropist. Such luck! The story of the school earns a donation.
Now – here’s an interesting moment. Mrs Warwick has a chat with her old buddy Mrs Stratton (Bernice Ladd giving good racist busybody). The latter spouts the usual generalisations about the ‘other’ in a social war. Here, as you’d expect, she advises her friend to shun the school project on the grounds of…stuff. Mrs Warwick takes a fuck-you stance and multiplies her donation to a cultural-shifting amount. Bravo for decency and luck. Mischeaux is talking to us all and can still be heard, rather sadly, 98 years later. Looking at you, Republicans of America.
And then comes the final reel. Sylvia had also met a local, Charles D. Lucas as Doctor V Vivian (really), whilst being mugged (really really). Fancying her socks off, he goes to Alma (risky) and gets the low-down on her youth. And at this point things go properly intense and tough to watch. By the by, Sylvia is mixed race. That’ll matter.
Alma tells of the family history, and the lynching of Sylvia’s family. And Mischeaux shows us the lynching. It’s a mix of pantomime, chilling inter-titles, natural horror, pitiable contempt for those who sucked up to vicious whites, and the full viciousness of said whites on those who didn’t suck up. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, a presumption of guilt on Sylvia’s Dad leads to trial-less violence: hangings – murder.
And then we see into the rapes. We are shown Sylvia being attacked by an old white man. He is set on raping her, and she shoves, cried, begs, and jumps away from him like a startled cat. He keeps attacking, chilling the TV room as old Jack here and Silent Steve shuffled in our seats. Old men should be kindly, old white men in 1920s race films should be, forgive me, a liberal surprise. I had a sense of proper shame at what this creature was doing. And then he sees a familiar scar on Sylvia’s chest (pre-code, people, but no nudity) and stops.
Cue the next layer of awful: the old man stops because he recognises the scar. It means Sylvia is his daughter. Oh yes. Mixed race, attempted rape, a woman trapped within the gates of an unbridled shit. Called Dad.
It’ll exhaust you, this film, but it is such an important story. Its place as an invisible, but admired historical document is, well, typical. It is a drama of the feelings of a community, told as people-politics before turning to a cold-eyed depiction of the worst transgressions, Within Our Gates, lest you doubt it, matters.
Preer is fantastic, Clements less so, and the men as disappointingly masculine as in every film ever. E.G. Tatum as the weak, obsequious Efrem, lynched just for being there, conveys humanity and the price paid by those who conspire to survive. It is the writer, director, producer that shocks, though: he has the courage to show us lynching, attempted child murder (oh yes), attempted rape with the complexity of that relationship…and domestic jealousy.
Now there was a storyteller.
Get thee to YouTube, and give it a go.
AMERICAN, DRAMA, HISTORICAL, MIDDLE YEARS MOVIES, SEPTEMBER TO SEPTEMBER LOVE, SILENT
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