Saturday, 29 October 2016

Black star rising … Within Our Gates (1920), BFI with Stephen Horne

The history of cinema is a one of wilful forgetfulness. Watching Nell Shipman reveals how deeply she and other women were buried by the grey men running Hollywood and the same must also be said for Oscar Micheaux. Why did American film have to be so male and why did it have to be so white?

Within Our Gates is not just Oscar Micheaux’s oldest surviving film it is also it is the oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director. It was in part a direct response to the racial specifics of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which could not be excused then – remember the film was banned in Boston – nor by any additional contextualization a century onwards. It would be fascinating if it wasn’t so sad and so all prevailing. If each film is a conversation between creator and audience our cinema has only been whispering about racial issues for the majority of the time between Griffith’s Birth and Nate Parker’s which recently premiered.

Ashley Clark, programmer of the BFI’s Black Star season, introduced with a wealth of detail about this little understood film and its ground-breaking auteur. He asked for a show of hands for those who had seen it and almost every arm indicated that we hadn’t.

Micheaux had a unique and complex cinematic vision that was running counter to his extremely limited budget and reputedly he never allowed more than one take whilst also working with a mix of trained and un-trained actors. He works a densely-populated novelesque narrative that would give even Emily Bronte headaches with the story advancing quickly between South and North and back again, a key section told in flashback and a cast of many key players: this is a film that needs to be watched more than once.

According to Scott Simmon in the programme notes, Micheaux made some 22 silent features and yet only Body and Soul (1925) had been thought to survive until a Spanish version of Within was discovered and retranslated to create the restoration.

The result is packed full of ideas and incident, occasionally confusing almost as much as it astonishes: and yes, you do occasionally feel like chanting “are you watching David Wark?!”

The cast is mixed race and this speaks of an emotional and collaborative honesty far in advance of Griffith. Not all the characters of various colours are good or bad and not all have happy or sad endings: this feels a significant advance on Victorian ideals and melodrama.

There are hangings, a depressingly common occurrence in 1920, 1930 and even much later and no one rides in with a well-aimed rifle shot to free the innocent: just a heart-breaking shot of a knife slowly cutting two taught ropes sometime later. The hangings were for all the family and given his almost matter of fact treatment of this everyday (or Sunday) event, you can see why controversy dogged this film.

Sylvia heads to Boston
The rough quality of the production reflects it budget but also perhaps Micheaux’s rush to get all of his ideas down. He was clearly passionate about race and the importance of education in helping the black populace advance. The story features educated middle class black society based in the North where, he sardonically notes, lynchings still occasionally happen. There’s the same characters on the edges of that society – notably the gangster Larry (superbly played by Jack Chenault) - that you still find in modern cinema.

Overall the quality of acting varies but Micheaux’s star Evelyn Preer carries the film’s most intense moments with real conviction. Preer worked on a number of his silent films including his lost first feature, The Homesteader (1917) and she stands out for her restraint and expression.

Jack Chenault
She plays teacher Sylvia Landry who in the breathless opening is assaulted by her fiancé (James D. Ruffin) after her jealous cousin Alma (Flo Clements) has withheld a key message from him. Already carrying the secrets of a mysterious past, Sylvia decides to leave behind this newly abusive present to head South to work in a school for poor black children.

The school is under threat of closure and she heads back North in search of funds to save the day. She quickly meets and falls in love with the friendly Doctor Vivien (Charles D. Lucas) – in the UK, she’d be lucky to even get an appointment – who offers her a brighter life but not before her past comes back to haunt her in a frenetic last half-hour that cross-cuts like Griffith in ways that make his heroic white boys look like so much play-acting.

Charles D. Lucas
Micheaux takes serious aim at white hypocrisy and the belief that black people should stay in their place – there was a campaign at the time to remove the right to vote – whilst some influential white folk felt the comfort of preachers should be enough to satisfy the second-class citizens. One such preacher is lampooned as he tries to whip his congregation into a frenzy – there’s some lovely reaction shots of a bored and embarrassed audience.

There’s also an “Uncle Tom” character Efrem (E. G. Tatum) who gossips his way to favour only to be betrayed by the very folk he aims to flatter whilst a Northern white philanthropist, Mrs. Elena Warwick (simply Mrs. Evelyn) proves that not all whites are as mean spirited as Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd) when it comes to extending a helping hand.  

The congregation react to the over-heated sermon
Ultimately Micheaux appears convinced that there is a way forward as Doctor Vincent urges Sylvia to believe in their country – a place where they are not immigrants but wholehearted contributors. As Sylvia says: “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition…”

The film may occasionally confuse but when it hits it hits hard and you’re left feeling shaken by the racist atrocities near the end. In Chicago where 23 African Americans and 15 whites had died during race riots in 1919, the leading black-owned newspaper, The Defender, declared that some felt “the showing pre-eminently dangerous; whilst those who reasoned with…the injustices of the time, the lynchings and handicaps of ignorance, determined that the time is ripe to bring the lesson to the front.”

A century onwards and we still walk some of the same ground.

Evelyn Preer
Stephen Horne accompanied with his usual tonal versatility incorporating some bluesy lines amongst the period-perfect improvisations. Last time I’d seen him he was in the gothic fairy tales of Fritz Lang’s Destiny but you screen ‘em and he’ll play ’em!

Within Our Gates is a film that repays a repeat viewing and luckily we have the Kino-produced compilation of early Pioneers of African-American Cinema on Blu-ray and DVD. The BFI is also releasing this set for the European market - you can pre-order here. Christmas is coming but then as Ashley Clark pointed out, there’s also a very handsome book to accompany the BFI’s Black Star season.

Both will be available from the BFI online and also, possibly, if you’re very good, from “Silent Santa”.

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