Within Our Gates

Within Our Gates ★★★★★

January 12, 2020 is exactly 100 years to the day of this films original, belaboured release, so I had no choice to revisit it. But seeing this for the first time in actually decent quality it's hard not to wonder aloud if there was a racial element in the tendency for academic assessments of this film to denigrate it for its supposed lack of formal flourish - the lights might not all be there but in it's distinct non-linearity it's far more sophisticated compared to what say, Chaplin was doing at the time. What's most impressive though, and sad, is how modern this movie still feels - the amount it covers is remarkable: gendered discrimination within minority communities, internalized racism, the gap of cultural perception between North and South, the political relationship of the church towards minortized peoples - specifically Black Americans, the necessity of political education, and even internalized sexism (at one point, a White woman claims she would be against universal sufferage, because it would mean Black Americans voting). There's even anxiety over being mixed-race. It's can also be quite playful too: Michaeux has a way of filming romantic fantasies as to trick you into thinking they're reality about 60 years before Scorsese would do the same thing in King of Comedy.

The biggest surprise about Within Our Gates is that it captures racial anxieties far better than most films 100 years later seem to be able too. And while perhaps it does ultimately strain to wrap up all its plot strands within its reletively brief 79 minute time-span, what remains astonishing and as a historical milestone, is that Micheaux demonstrates a socio-political understanding and sophistication well beyond any of his white contemporaries in cinema up to that point in time. And what remains striking is again how contemporary so much of this still feels, and how much comes down to a racial and class majority deliberately preventing oppressed peoples from educating themselves, so that they retain the upper hand both in social privilege and that they can continue the exploitation process even after slavery through capitalism. And of course the great irony of the end: who is the real primitive, as the white characters so consistently fumble over themselves aloud about - is it the people seeking education, trying to better their lives, or is it the ones who create lynch mobs in hysterics?

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