We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. We’ll be covering a new film on the list every week. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
Look, I can only speak for myself, but since the beginning of this list, I’ve been hankering for a different American filmmaker (if you notice, so far, we’ve only had DW Griffith and European directors, aside from one outing from Edwin S Porter early on) who would serve as a counter to some of DW Griffith’s worst excesses. Enter Oscar Micheaux, one of the first prominent Black filmmakers. There’s a tendency to look back and think that, although we certainly consider Birth of a Nation racist now, audiences of the 1910s had no problems with its more aggressive racially-charged content. Not so. The film was actually incredibly controversial, sparking protests and boycotts in cities around the country. And in 1920, Oscar Micheaux released Within Our Gates, a direct rebuttal to the propaganda of Birth of a Nation.
Where DW Griffith portrays white supremacists as Wagnerian heroes, charging valiantly to save the day, Micheaux casts them as the destroyer of the Black family unit and purveyors of untold generational trauma. Our heroine of Within Our Gates is Sylvia Landry, a young Black woman (and only survivor of an attack by white supremacists that killed her parents and brother when she was a girl, the brutal flashbacks to which are a chilling rebuke of the flamboyant histrionics of Birth of a Nation.) She has traveled to the North to visit her cousin and raise money for a woefully underfunded school for Black children in the South.
The modern-day scenes are fairly traditional and even generic, but the sequences that depict Sylvia’s past are compelling because they approach the reality of life for Black families in Jim Crow-era America in a way that few other films would dare. In both Within Our Gates and Birth of a Nation, the threat of rape is visited upon female protagonists. Birth of a Nation’s pure, chaste Mae Marsh jumps off a cliff to her death rather than submit to the advances of a leering Black man. But with Within Our Gates, Micheaux directly challenges this idea of Black men preying on white women. In his film, Sylvia is about to be assaulted by the man who participated in the mob that lynched her parents, and he only relents when he recognizes a peculiar birthmark on her chest that identifies her as his own mixed-race daughter. This intergenerational legacy of sexual assault and incest harkens back to the abuses of the plantation and the trauma that would become a birthright; it’s Micheaux challenging, with everything he’s got, DW Griffith’s ideas of who the real predators in society are.
Within Our Gates is one of the most famous examples of a race film, a little-known corner of the movie industry that lasted through the silent era well into the 1950s. These films were made with Black casts featuring Black stories, aimed at Black audiences (many movie theaters, especially in the South, weren’t desegregated until the early 1960s.) But interestingly, they were not usually made by Black directors — Oscar Micheaux standing as a notable exception. And indeed, much of his work was considered lost for the majority of film history. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Within Our Gates was rediscovered in Spain, and the legacy of Oscar Micheaux was restored. Within Our Gates was his second ever film, and to this day is the earliest surviving film directed by a Black filmmaker.
Really, the fact that it was made at all in the first place is something of a miracle. It was met with a ton of resistance, as worried distributors feared that its frank depiction of racial violence would lead to unrest in American cities, many of which were still recovering from the previous year’s race riots that had seen many Black homes and businesses destroyed by mobs. But beyond the distribution issues, Micheaux was often forced to operate on a shoestring budget: he certainly couldn’t afford reshoots, so whatever he managed to get on the first take was often what he had to work with. He was never considered a particularly artistic director, and his films were mainly his way of voicing his ideas about the challenges faced by the Black community in modern America. His characters were frequently well-educated, middle-class people in contemporary urban environments. Because of this, he was able to tell stories that reflected the lives of his audience far better than many of his white counterparts.
Oscar Micheaux’s work is extraordinary: without the benefit of the extravagant budgets lavished on other filmmakers from the same period, Micheaux nonetheless taps into the spirit of the burgeoning Black creative community in the 1920s. His films speak clearly and eloquently about the issues of the day facing Black Americans when almost no other filmmakers at the time were having this cinematic conversation. And a hundred years later, after efforts by the Censor Board to drown him out and the unfortunate disregard for film preservation that would see Within Our Gates lost for over fifty years, here’s Oscar Micheaux: still standing.