Monday, November 8, 2010

Within Our Gates

TCM's second installment of Moguls and Movie Stars, at 8:00 PM ET tonight looks at the birth of the movie industry in Hollywood, that being the silent films of the 'teens of the last century. The Birth of a Nation gets an airing at midnight. D.W. Griffith's classic is generally more remembered today for its racist attitudes. One of the many results of that was to spur the beginning of a black filmmaking industry to tell stories by blacks for blacks. One of the earliest surviving examples is the movie Within Our Gates, which is airing overnight at 3:30 AM.

The story is of a light-skinned black woman in Boston who gets rejected by her fiancé and, as a result, moves back south, where she becomes a teacher at one of the segregated black schools. This being the South of the Jim Crow era, there's not much help from the government, and so our heroine is forced to go back to the North to try to raise money for the school. However, she finds that even the North isn't as progressive-minded as people today might like to think, with both the wealthy whites and the black population rebuffing her. This may have something to do with her past, which is revealed at the end of the movie.

The "race films", as they were called, were made on shoestring budgets, since black filmmakers didn't have access to the resources that the mainstream Hollywood studios did. As a result, the acting ranges from some being as good as white actors of the day to well-meaning amateurs. The same goes for the production values and storylines. Regarding Within Our Gates, all of these problems show up, especially in the story line, which is tough to follow. Still, director Oscar Micheaux made a movie that isn't bad and is certainly well-worth watching for its portrayal of the race issues of the day which, as far as I can tell are reasonably accurately presented; after all, there really was a vigorous debate between the Booker T. Washingtons of the world who thought black advancement would be better served by education and being model citizens, and the W.E.B. Duboises who believed blacks needed to be more strident in demanding their equal rights. There's one character who makes it a point to mention the contributions that black soldiers made in the Spanish-American War and the recently-ended World War I. Ninety years on it looks dated and as silly as the black scene in It's a Big Country but, coming from a black director, it's easy ot see the point Micheaux was trying to make.

As with Metropolis, Within Our Gates shows the importance of film preservation. The movie had been presumed lost for decades, until the early 1990s when a surviving (but incomplete) print was found in Spain. It's all we have, but it will have to do.

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