The 1920 film Within Our Gates is one of the best films and an American silent film and one of Hollywood’s earliest African-American films. Directed by an African American, Oscar Micheaux, Within Our Gates is the earliest known surviving feature film preserved by the Library of Congress’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division in 1993. It was restored from a single surviving Spanish print, retitled La Negra.
Within Our Gates-1920 is one of the 100 Hollywood’s films of the 100 years from 1920 to 2019 that I have started to complete watching. As an avid film lover, I have decided to watch and write a review regarding all those films.
Presumably, Within Our Gates-1920 is based on the work of an American writer and director Oscar Micheaux who, along with Within Our Gates directed many other films during his lifetime. As the film is silent one the conversation is expressed in the written form in the middle of the conversation.
I like the film because it shows how black people were being treated by white people in those early days. Nevertheless, the storyline is a very powerful one. Sylvia’s struggle in improving the lifestyle was very moving. Regardless of some mainstream black hater white folks, there are still some good-hearted people like Mrs Lena Warwick. The story is portrayed as below.
The Storyline of Within Our Gates-1920
Sylvia Landry—a schoolteacher from the South who is typical of an intelligent Negro—is visiting her cousin, Alma Prichard or Sophia. She brought a letter to Sophia. The letter came from Conrad Drebert, with whom Sophia has been in love secretly. Sylvia was engaged to Conrad.
On the other hand, Larry Prichard, stepbrother of Alma Prichard, was pursuing Sylvia and longed for her intimacy during her visit. Sophia interrupted them in the pretext that she has forgotten something on the sofa. “I’m so sorry—but, really, I—well don’t love you, and the truth is I am engaged”, says Sylvia to Larry, who expressed his love to her.
Philip Gentry, a detective, had a letter from the Chief of Police regarding Larry, who was known as ‘The Leech’, “is one of the most notorious members of the underworld and has left this city, destination unknown. If he should surface in your vicinity keep him under strict surveillance”. So, the detective after Larry.
Sophia received a telegram actually written to Sylvia by her fiancé Conrad Drebert from Brazil. It informs about his arrival from Brazil. ‘Leaving today. Arrive Thursday 8 p.m. Kisses’, the telegram reads. Ecstatic, after reading, Sophia hid the telegram from Sylvia’s knowledge.
Later that night Larry killed a professional gambler, Red, in a nearby bar, and the incidence was followed by detective Gentry. However, Sylvia had a nightmare that Larry killed a man. And in fact, after the incidence, he got home and tried to earn Sylvia’s intimacy inside a separate room, closed-door, while her fiancé is on his way home. Conrad has arrived learnt that she is with Larry.
Infuriated he tied to strangle her as she came out because of her infidelity, but was intercepted by Sophie. “Conrad! Conrad! I beg you to listen”, cried Sylvia. But Conrad rushes from the room and leaves the city without having any explanation from Sylvia.
Far from the city and in the depth of the forest of the South where ignorance and lynch reign supreme, there was a village of Piney Woods and the school for Negroes. It was founded by Reverend Wilson Jacobs, a pioneer in championing black people’s education. His sister Constance was his only ally in so doing.
Fled from the city, Sylvia came to the school in response to Jacobs’s advertisement. At the same time, when she entered the office, a black man with two children also came in and complained to Jacobs that, “Weevils ate up the cotton and being as I couldn’t pay the rent, they took my mule. I hears ‘bout your school—‘n, so we walked from my place, away off, ‘cause my children don’t do nothin’, but say, ‘papa, without schoolin, we c’n never ‘mount to nothin’, so here I is, suh, ready ta work day ‘n’ night so’s my children c’n get schoolin ‘n’ be useful to society”.
But the lack of money trouble Jacobs’ endeavour as he welcomes a number of students, and was thinking of closing the school. Knowing the situation, Sylvia made up her mind to leave the school for raising funds. “It is my duty and duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition, I am doing up North where I’ll try to raise the money we need. May God be with us”, Sylvia told to Jacobs. And off, she left for Boston.
In Boston, Dr V. Vivian, who was passionate about developing Negroes’ condition, helped Sylvia getting back her purse when a thief snatched it and handed him over to the police.
Mrs Geraldine Stratton, a rich Southerner, in the city, was a bitter enemy of woman’s suffrage because it appals her to think that Negro women might vote.
Meanwhile, one week has passed, but Sylvia still has not been able to speak to any of the city’s rich people. Exhausted, one day she was pondering on a bench nearby the street, and suddenly notices that a little child was approaching toward an automobile. She succumbed to an accident when she rushed and tried to save the boy from a near-certain fatality. Fortunately, inside the automobile was a philanthropist, Mrs Elena Warwick.
Mrs Elena took her to the hospital and attended regularly. On her visit, Sylvia revealed to Mrs Elena about the school and told her that it needs USD 5,000 to run or else see closure. Elena told her to visit her after recovery and assured to see through the matter, to help her school.
Elated, Sylvia paid a visit to Elena the next day at her house. Elena expressed that she is very much interested in the cause of her race and will find the means to help the most effective way”.
Meanwhile, Dr Vivian and Sylvia have grown their intimacy.
Geraldine, a woman who appals at the coloured women’s suffrage, visited Mrs Elena and appalled to hear that she is going to donate USD 5,000 to the school established on the cause of Negro race. Geraldine wondered why would she give away such a big amount of money while she can just get away with giving USD 1,00 to the black preacher old Ned.
Discouraged by Geraldine, Mrs Elena told Sylvia on her second visit that she would not be able to donate the money. Disappointed, Sylvia returned.
Sunday morning, preacher old Ned preached a sermon, ‘Abraham Fatted Lamb’ to Churchgoers black people. “Behold black people will the first and will be the last”, says old Ned, “while the white folk, with all their schooling, all their wealth, all their sins, will most of all fall into the everlasting inferno, while our race, lacking these vices, most all will ascend to heaven, Halleluiah!”
Monday old Ned paid a visit to his white friends who were disturbed by news on the newspaper regarding Negroes’ right to vote, and they asked old Ned’s opinion. He read the news and said, “Y ‘all knows that I always preach. This is a land for the white men and black folks gotta know their place. Let the white men go to hell with his politics, wealth, and sins. Give me Jesus. Leave it to me, gen’men, I always preach that vices and sins of the white folks will end them up in hell when Judgement Day comes, more Negroes will rise up to heaven”. With a kick in the ass by the white friends old Ned left.
While leaving his white friends he thought, “Again I’ve sold my birthright. All for a miserable ‘mess of pottage’. Negroes and white—all are equal. As for me, miserable sinner, hell is my destiny”.
On her second visit to Mrs Elena, Mrs Geraldine was informed that no matter what she thinks about Negroes, she is still going to donate her money to the school for black people’s cause, and to Geraldine’s shock, she confirmed that it would not only be USD 5,000 but going to issue a cheque of 50,000 dollars. Geraldine was greatly disappointed.
Accomplished her goal Sylvia returns to the South to the Piney Woods School. But Larry did not quit pursuing her yet. He followed her all the way, Piney Woods. He returns to the place every Saturday. One day he was imploring her to marry him and threatened that he will let the authority know what sort of woman she is if she does not agree to marry him by the next Saturday. “You miserable liar”, cried, Sylvia.
On a sleepless stormy night of Sunday, she decides to escape to the North in order to maintain her integrity untainted.
As for Larry, he is back to the city where his stepsister Alma Prichard lives and was asked not to return there as the detective Gentry is around searching him. However, out of money, Larry went on an operation where he was encountered by the detective in the act. With a few shoot-outs between the two, wounded Larry escaped the capture but coincidentally ran into Dr Vivian’s arm who was looking for Sylvia.
“In consequence of attending to Larry’s fatal wound, Dr Vivian meets Alma, and heard an extraordinary story from the lisps of the woman who has repented her past actions”.
She told that Sylvia is her cousin but raised by a Landry family who was killed by the white mob years ago. She was in love with to whom Sylvia was engaged, and intercepted a telegram which was sent to her, and arranged a compromising situation with Larry”, so she could marry him.
Alma starts saying Sylvia’s story that, “Years ago in the estate of Grindlestone there lived Jasper Landry. He was just a typical Negro labourer in the Great Delta who lacked education and the right to vote, but with a hope of home for their family, a few acres of land, a church to attend and an education for their children. Sylvia was their adopted daughter who was in school with her stepbrother Emil.
Philip Grindlestone, landowner, aristocrat, and master of neighbouring land in the estate, had a servant named Efrem who was a great gossiper. Efrem’s only pleasure was to take tales from one place to another. Philip was infamously known as a modern Nero, feared by the black, and envied and hated by the white.
Efrem one day whispered to Philip about Sylvia and Landry saying, “Dat Landry gal been ta school ‘n’ keeps her pappy’s books now—so ya won’t git ta cheat him no mo (That Landry girl been to school and keeps her papa’s boos now—so you won’t get to cheat him no more). Just imagine”!
The next day as Landry went to pay his debts to Grindlestone, something unexpected happened. While he was negotiating the payment, Grindlestone’s spy Efrem began sneaking through a window, while a white man under a different window was holding a rifle at him to kill.
An argument ensued between the two, and Grindlestone blasted Landry for being “mighty smart” and said, “Remember that the white man makes the law in this country”. Humiliated, Landry called him “poor white trash—no better than a Negro”, whereupon Grindlestone replied by saying, “I have always treated coloured pretty well—but I remember that my father, who owned a thousand slaves, had callouses on his hand, and showed me that was the only way to keep ‘em inline”. And he thrust Landry over the bench.
Stood up, Landry was trying to collect himself while all of a sudden a fire from the awaiting gunman hit the wall which Grindlestone thought Landry was trying to kill him. Grindlestone collected his pistol and was trying to kill Landry, in self-defence. But by the movement Landry has disarmed Grindlestone, the gunman fired the second shot which hit his chest and made him collapsed on the floor.
Shocked, perplexed Landry could not believe in himself that he might kill Grindlestone. Witnessed, Efrem went to the city of white people to spread the news that “Landry killed Mistah Grindlestone”.
Frightened the Landry family escaped to a nearby swamp in the stormy night while the angry white mob was searching for them. Nevertheless, the actual killer of Grindlestone was shot dead during the search by the armed angry mob who mistook him for Landry.
Regardless of the fact that Efrem had been accepted as a good fellow by the white, he was still captured and killed by the angry mob.
Having been captured Jasper Landry was brought to the place of execution, under guard. On Sunday he was killed with incineration along with his wife, but the little boy Emil was able to escape and his whereabouts unknown. Sylvia took refuge in his relative’s house being ignorant about what happened to others.
In the same afternoon, Armad Grindlestone, brother of Philip Grindlestone joint the mob and followed Sylvia where she had her refuge. Armad struggled to catch Sylvia inside the house, but in the end, she gives in and about to be killed, but a scratch on Sylvia’s right side of chest stumbled him. He could not kill her. Because he realised that Sylvia is his legitimate daughter from his previous marriage to a black woman, and was adopted and raised by the Landry family. But Armad kept that secret form her”. Alma finishes Sylvia’s story.
After hearing the story Dr Vivian left Sophia and found Sylvia. “Be proud of our country, Sylvia. We should never forget what our people did in Cuba under Roosevelt’s command. And at Carrizal in Mexico. And later in France, from Bruges to Chateau-Thierry, from Saint-Mihiel to the Alps; we never were immigrants. Be proud of our country always! And you, Sylvia, have been thinking deeply about this, I knew—but unfortunately, your thoughts have been warped. In spite of your misfortune, you will always be a patriot—and a tender wife. I love you”, Dr Vivian concluded.
Sylvia understood and married Dr Vivian. The film ends!
Within Our Gates (1920) is a great film that tells us about how a woman’s past haunted and how people were fiercely divided between the lines of racism, racial supremacy.
But over the period of hundred and so years when civilizations took a new turn, technology developed, education is made available for all, religion has been made inclusive, the justice system refashioned to equal treatment of all equally and financial progress has touched nearly all, we will observe whether human and humanity has changed for the betterment of people later.
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