Within Our Gates Film Analysis.

In 1919, Oscar Michaux’s film, Within Our Gates, premiered with many different depictions of African Americans.  The movie was made to rebuke D.W. Griffith’s movie, The Birth of a Nation, which depicted many different stereotypes of African Americans such as the buck, the mammy, and the mulatto.  Michaux’s film was aimed to break those stereotypes and to depict African Americans as they truly are.  Within Our Gates is a silent movie about a woman named Sylvia Conrad, whose parents were lynched when she was younger and is presently living in the North (Pennsylvania) with her friend Alma Prichard whose brother Larry is in love with Sylvia.  Sylvia, however, rejects Larry because she is already engaged to another man, whom Alma loves as well.  Alma decides to put Sylvia in a compromising position by having a man try to embrace Sylvia and at the same time have her fiancé come over and catch them.  After he catches them, he dumps Sylvia and she then sets out for the South answering an ad for a financial donation to start a new school for African American children.  While searching for donations she meets Dr. Vivian who is an African American doctor and he falls in love with her.  She is able to later find a financial donation from a kindly old widow, who nearly runs her over.  At the end, Dr. Vivian convinces Sylvia to marry him.

Michaux’s film presents a strong distinction between the North and the South, but also some striking similarities.  First of all, one distinction between the North and the South is that African Americans in the North were allowed to vote, to take political office, and to be educated. Michaux shows this through the African American characters of the North. The African Americans of the North are shown in a modern light, especially the character of Sylvia herself.  Sylvia is portrayed as a well educated and a well dressed nice young lady.  Sylvia was portrayed this way to show that upward mobility in Northern societies can be possible for African Americans. This could be the director’s way of saying that the North does have its good points by supporting the education of African Americans, giving them the right to vote, and making them eligible for political office.  As the audience finds out later in the film, Sylvia is half white and was adopted and would fit the description of a mulatto.  However, Sylvia does not fit the description of a mulatto, because she seems to be strong and independent to a certain degree.

One more distinction between the North and the South is that it is possible to take action in the North against racist laws.  A prime example of this is the character of Dr. Vivian.  Dr. Vivian is shown as well dressed in one scene and reading a book by W.E.B DuBois.  This was done to portray Dr. Vivian as educated, well off, and independent.  This is how Michaux probably viewed northern African Americans.  It also shows Dr. Vivian as a man who has a concern with helping other African Americans attain social mobility.  Secondly, in the scene where Sylvia is robbed, Michaux shows Dr. Vivian as a man of action.  This portrayal of the North’s racism could be Michaux’s way of telling both Southern and Northern African Americans not to rely on whites, but to take action into their own hands to fight against racist laws.  Michaux also shows this through their skin complexion.  The African American characters from the North have much lighter skin than those from the South.

The South, however, is portrayed as outright racist in Michaux’s movie.  One example of this is the scene where the elderly white widow invites her Southern friend over to tell her about the donation she is about to make.  Her Southern friend tries to convince her otherwise and states her own racial convictions.  Contrary to that of D.W. Griffith’s movie, where the Southern African Americans such as the tom are portrayed in a positive light, these images are portrayed in a negative light in Michaux’s movie.  In the final sequence of the movie, the audience sees Sylvia’s parents being lynched.  In this sequence, there is a total “role reversal” of that in D.W. Griffith’s movie (Cripps, 186).  Instead of African Americans being the savages, white people are portrayed in that light.  Sylvia and her family are the “good guys” in this sequence and the bad guys were the slave master, his servant, and the other whites of the town.  This is best shown in the scene where Sylvia is nearly raped by a white man, who is actually her father.  In this scene, the white man’s shirt is unbuttoned a bit, his hair is ruffled, and he is holding a weapon in his hand.  Michaux might have used this scene to point out that Southern whites were the “savages.”

Michaux is especially critical of Southern African Americans, who differ so much from Northern African Americans.  In the movie, “the faithful servants” in Griffith’s movie who were viewed as good are actually sided with the villainous whites in Michaux’s movie.  Unlike the Northern African Americans, the Southern African Americans are out to be accepted with the Southern whites, but the Northern African Americans are more independent and are not out to please whites.  The character of “good old Ned” for example is that of a Tom who preaches to African Americans in church about being submissive to the white man and going to Hell if one is not.  One scene is where Ned walks out of his white master’s office and looks up telling himself that he might go to Hell for what he is doing.  In this scene, Michaux offers another contrast of North and South African Americans.  Northern African Americans believe that they are free, when in fact, they are still seen as inferior to the white man.  Southern African Americans, however, are aware to how they are viewed, but do not do much about it.

Another example of an Uncle Tom is Ephram, the servant of Sylvia’s father’s master. He is shown as a grinning lackey to his master, who tells him everything that goes on between the slaves.  Ephram is also portrayed as a “Judas” to his people and as someone who is willing to go to any lengths (i.e. lying about his master’s death) in order to gain favor by the white community. His death in the movie is the director’s way of “punishing” the Uncle Tom stereotype and to urge Southern whites to drop this image.  This portrayal of Ned as a devilish Tom also made a stark contrast to D.W. Griffith’s movie. Griffith’s movie portrayed Toms as the faithful allies of the whites.  In Michaux’s movie, Toms like Ned were portrayed as conspiring lackeys whose sole purpose in life was to be liked by the white man.

Michaux not only presents strong distinctions from the North and the South, but also striking similarities.  First of all, to start off with the North, Michaux shows that with the North, there was still as much racism as with the South.  This could stem from the political changes that went on during the Reconstruction.  According to the reading by Manning Marable, “The white North did not wage the Civil War ‘to free the slaves’” (Marable, 3).  Marable also states that President Lincoln did not believe in equality and the Civil War was fought to preserve Federal authority (Marable, 3).  In other words, Northerners are still racists because they look at African Americans as being helpless and always needing the help of white men. This is very much true in the case of the elderly white widow who ends up giving Sylvia a sizeable donation for her school.  In the scene, Sylvia is accidentally run over by the widow’s car.  Out of pity for Sylvia, the old widow agrees to give her a donation.  Michaux could have used this sequence to show that the only reason the North “freed” African American slaves was because they wanted to feel better about themselves. Without the old white woman’s help, Sylvia may or may not have found her donation.

Another similarity between the North and the South is that they both have racist laws. One example is when Sylvia is robbed in one scene, the camera cuts to a scene of a police officer, who is supposed to represent the law, is standing on the corner doing nothing.  It is not until Dr. Vivian apprehends the perpetrator that the cop comes to arrest him.  This is also another distinction between the North and the South, in that racism in the North is more subtle than it is in the South.  The characters of Alma and Larry Prichard could also show the racial convictions of Northerners.  For example, Alma is shown as lying and deceitful and Larry is a common crook. Alma is portrayed as a type of mulatto, due to her light complexion and the fact that she acts tragic, because she cannot have her love, Sylvia’s fiancé.   Michaux is perhaps using these two characters to show the modern day racism in the North (i.e. African Americans as criminals and liars).  Also, through both of these characters, Michaux is trying to show that Northern whites may have a certain degree of freedom, but are still thought of as inferior by whites.  During this time also, many African Americans were being lynched in North as well as in the South.  According to Marable, “Throughout the conflict, blacks in the North continued to experience racist assaults.” (Marable, 3).  In the film, there is no reference to Northern assaults, but it does make clear that there is still a great deal of racial violence in the North.

Oscar Michaux’s film was defiant for its time.  It challenged the stereotypes in another movie named Birth of a Nation and showed the benefits of moving to the North.  He not only manages to differentiate between the North and the South, but also to present some similarities between them.  However, Michaux also warns in his movie that moving to the North could also be a double edged sword, due to the fact that the North was as still racist as the South, but the racism in the North was more subtle and covered up.  Michaux also points out the importance of setting up African American schools, because education is one of the most important ways to achieve social mobility.  Michaux’s movie still projects a haunting resonance today, because racism is still as strong today as it was back then, especially the media.  The only difference is that racism is more subtle and has taken on different forms, but it is still the same hatred that existed since colonial times.

 


Works Cited.

Cripps, Tomas.  Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film 1900-1942. “The Black Underground.”  Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York, 1993.  170-202.

Marable, Manning.  Race, Reform, and Rebellion. “Prologue: The Legacy of the First Reconstruction.”  MacMillan: London, 1984.  1-11.

 

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