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Within Our Gates


Within Our Gates was produced and directed by Oscar Micheaux in 1919. He is considered to be the first African-American director of feature films and this is the first such film still in existence. I found the plot difficult to follow, and he does not give full play to the "money" scenes at the conclusion but it is certainly of historic interest.

File:Within Our Gates (1920).webm
Within Our Gates (1920) is a silent film by the director Oscar Micheaux that portrays the contemporary racial situation in the United States during the early twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration (African American) of blacks to cities of the North and Midwest, and the emergence of the "New Negro". It was part of a genre called race films.
The plot features an African-American woman who goes North in an effort to raise money for a rural school in the Deep South for poor Black children. Her romance with a black doctor eventually leads to revelations about her family's past and her own mixed-race, European ancestry. The film portrays racial violence under white supremacy, and the lynching of a black man. Produced, written and directed by Micheaux, it is the oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director.


The film opens with Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young African-American woman, visiting her cousin Alma in the North. Landry is waiting for the return of Conrad from World War I as they plan to marry. Alma also loves Conrad, and would like Sylvia to marry her brother-in-law Larry, a gambler and criminal. Alma arranges for Sylvia to be caught in a compromising situation by Conrad when he returns. He leaves for Brazil, and Larry kills a man during a game of poker. Sylvia returns to the South.
Landry meets Rev. Jacobs, a minister who runs a rural school for black children called Piney Woods School. The school was overcrowded, and he cannot continue on the small amount offered to blacks for education by the state. With the school facing closure, Landry volunteers to return to the North to raise $5,000.
She has difficulty raising money, and her purse is stolen, but it is recovered by a local man, Dr. Vivian. Almost hit by a car as she saves a young child playing in the street, Landry meets the owner, Elena Warwick, a wealthy philanthropist. Learning of Sylvia's mission, she decides to give her the needed money. When her Southern friend, Mrs. Stratton, tries to discourage her, Warwick increases her donation to $50,000. This amount will save the school and Landry returns to the South.
Meanwhile, Dr. Vivian has fallen in love with Sylvia. He goes to Alma, who tells him about Sylvia's past: these flashback scenes are portrayed in the film. Sylvia was adopted and raised by a poor Black family, the Landrys, who managed to provide her with an education.
During her youth, the senior Landry was wrongfully accused of the murder of an unpopular but wealthy white landlord, Gridlestone. A white mob attacked the Landry family, lynching the parents and hunting down their son, who escaped after nearly being shot. The mob also lynched Efrem, a servant of Gridlestone. Sylvia escaped after being chased by Gridlestone's brother, who was close to raping her. Noticing a scar on her breast, Gridlestone's brother realized that Sylvia was his mixed-race daughter, born of his affair with a local black woman. He had paid for her education.
After hearing about her life, Dr. Vivian meets with Sylvia; he encourages her to love her country and take pride in the contributions of African Americans. He professes his love for her, and the film ends with their marriage.

Production background

Often regarded in the context of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which had appeared five years earlier, critics have considered Micheaux's project as a response to Griffith. The film's portrayal of lynching shows "what Blacks knew and Northern Whites used to believe", turning the "accusation of 'primitivism'... back onto White Southern culture". The missing sequence was summarized with an intertitle frame.


Within Our Gates was initially rejected by the Board of Censors in Chicago when Micheaux submitted the film in December 1919. An article in the Chicago Defender of 17 January 1920 asserted, "This is the picture that required two solid months to get by the Censor Boards." A week later the Defender reported,
<blockquote>"Those who reasoned with the spectacle of last July in Chicago ever before them, declared the showing pre-eminently dangerous; while those who reasoned with the knowledge of existing conditions, the injustices of the times, the lynchings and handicaps of ignorance, determined that the time is ripe to bring the lesson to the front."</blockquote>
Critics of the film feared that the lynching and attempted rape scenes would spark interracial violence in a city still tense from Chicago Race Riot of 1919 1919. Officials in Omaha (which also suffered a racial riot), New Orleans, and other cities objected for similar reasons when they blocked the screening of the film or demanded that those scenes be cut.
When released in January 1920 against reports of the controversy, the film garnered large audiences in Chicago. It was screened in differently cut versions. For example, an article in the Defender reported that on February 24, 1920, Within Our Gates would be shown at the States Theater in Chicago "without the cuts which were made before its initial presentation." Other evidence of cuts were extant film stills of scenes that did not appear in the surviving film copy, and viewers' descriptions that differed from the current version of the film.
It is considered an important expression of African-American life in the years immediately following World War I, when violent racist incidents occurred throughout the United States, but most frequently in the South. In 1992, Within Our Gates was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant".


Early judgments that Micheaux's work lacked aesthetics finesse or artistic power now appear short-sighted. Micheaux constructed Within Our Gates to educate his audience about racism, uplift, peonage, women's rights, and the urban "new Negro" emerging after the Great Migration.
His movement in the plot between North and South was similar to that of D. W. Griffith, who used a North-South marriage plot, but also expressed the mobility of peoples during this period. Griffith dramatized a white reunion of regions that canceled the legacy of the Reconstruction Era to leave blacks out of the national picture. Micheaux's film ended with a wedding that united sophisticated African Americans from the North and South. Together, they symbolically lay claim to the whole nation, despite discrimination against blacks in the military, and the racial riots of 1919, which were based in labor and social competition.
Critics (such as Jane Gaines, Ronald Green, and Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence) celebrated the skill with which Micheaux intercut the lynching of the Landry family with the attempted rape of Sylvia by Gridlestone. This editing deconstructed the white ideology that lynching was to punish black men for alleged sexual assaults against white women. Micheaux portrayed the more frequent sexual assaults of black women by white men, alluding to the widespread historical practice of white men taking advantage of black women slaves. Other passages were edited to deconstruct white visual traditions and white ideologies.
He provided detailed layering of allusions to current social and political events, including the death of Theodore Roosevelt, the contributions of African-American soldiers to the war, and debates in the US Senate over Jim Crow laws and labor peonage in the South. The film can only be evaluated in its fragmentary form of the only surviving print.

Representation of racism

The film portrayed several aspects of contemporary African-American society. Heroes and heroines included Sylvia Landry and Reverend Jacobs, criminals such as Larry, and "lackeys" such as a minister whom Mrs. Stafford supported, who encouraged African Americans to reject suffrage. The critic Ronald J. Green suggests that Bernice Ladd as Mrs. Stafford, represents a "Lillian Gish figure", erring to her role in The Birth of a Nation. She was racist and anti-feminist.
Efrem, a servant to Gridlestone, denounced Mr. Landry as the murderer, although he was not a witness to the crime. Overturning the relationship which Efrem believed he had with whites, a mob lynched him when it failed to find the Landrys.

Category:1920 films
Category:American films
Category:American silent feature films
Category:United States National Film Registry films
Category:Black-and-white films
Category:Race films
Category:Films directed by Oscar Micheaux
Category:Films about race and ethnicity
Oscar Micheaux

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