“Justice! Where are you? Answer me! How long? Great God almighty, How Long?”
This cry comes before Black Lives Matter. It was shouted long before the Los Angeles riots. It predates the unrest in Watts, California, and the March on Washington. It comes from one of the oldest surviving films directed by an African American: 1920’s “Within Our Gates.”
Directed by Oscar Micheaux, the black-and-white silent film stars Evelyn Preer as Sylvia Landry, an educated biracial woman living in the South who travels to the North, whiche the opening title card says it’s “where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.” Landry’s travels involve securing funds from Northerners sympathetic to the education of black children, seeking $5,000 to keep a school open in fictional Piney Woods. While there Landry meets Dr. V. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who later falls in love with her. Landry also finds a white Northerner, Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn).
While this short description paints a rosy picture, “Within Our Gates” illustrates the pains of African Americans in the United States less than 60 years after the end of slavery and about 30 years before the start of the civil rights movement. The right to vote, lynching, women’s rights and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan play key roles in this drama. It also comes about five years after the debut of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that romanticized the Klan and is considered to be Hollywood’s first blockbuster.
“Within Our Gates” is an example of a “race film” – movies produced between 1910 and 1930 as an antidote to the stereotypes of blacks in films like “The Birth of a Nation.” The majority of cast members were black with white and African Americans behind the camera and were mostly shown in “colored only” theaters in the U.S. and elsewhere internationally. Micheaux opened his own film studio in Chicago and went on to direct more than 40 films. “Within Our Gates” was only his second film, and in 1992, the Library of Congress selected the pioneering film for the National Film Registry.
“Within Our Gates” is one of more than two dozen full-length movies and film fragments included in the “Pioneers of African American Cinema” collection. Released last July in a five-disc set and now available to stream on Netflix, the collection celebrates the works of Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Richard E. Norman, Richard Kahn, the husband-and-wife team of James and Eloyce Gist and literary giant Zora Neale Hurston. Among the titles included are 1930’s “Hell-Bound Train,” 1932’s “Ten Minutes to Live” and 1939’s “The Bronzed Buckaroo.”
In a year where two films directed by African Americans are nominated for a best picture Oscar and during Black History Month, take the time to see the forefathers of cinema.