Year of Release: 1920
Runtime: 79 mins.
Black & White
Studio: Micheaux Film Co.
Producer: Oscar Micheaux
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry)
Flo Clements (Alma Prichard)
James D. Ruffin (Conrad Drebert)
Jack Chenault (Larry Prichard)
William Smith (Philip Gentry, a detective)
Charles D. Lucas (Dr. V. Vivian)
Bernice Ladd (Mrs. Geraldine Stratton)
William Starks (Jasper Landry)
Ralph Johnson (Philip Griddlestone)
E. G. Tatum (Efrem)
Grant Edwards (Emil)
Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from the South, visits her Northern cousin, divorcee Alma Prichard. Sylvia’s fiancé, Conrad Drebert, writes to her from Brazil, where he is working, to tell her that he will send a telegram with the date of his arrival. When the telegram arrives, Alma, who is in love with Conrad, intercepts and destroys it. When Conrad arrives, Alma sets up Sylvia to be seen with another man.
Enraged, Conrad tries to strangle her, but she is saved by Alma. Conrad storms out and breaks their engagement, much to Alma’s satisfaction. Saddened by the breakup, Sylvia leaves town and takes a job at a school for poor black children in the southern town of Piney Woods, that is run by Reverend Wilson Jacobs and his sister Constance. When money troubles hit the establishment, however, Sylvia decides to go to Boston to find a rich benefactor. One day, depressed that she has not met any rich people to take an interest in the school’s plight, Sylvia saves a little boy from being struck by the car of rich philanthropist Elena Warwick, and is herself injured. Mrs. Warwick visits her in the hospital and Sylvia tells her that the school must find $5,000 in the next ten days or it will close.
Mrs. Warwick is set to give the school the money until she speaks with her friend, Mrs. Geraldine Stratton, who convinces the naïve Mrs. Warwick that educating blacks is a mistake, and that they are more suited to being field hands and lumberjacks. She suggests giving the money to Old Ned, a black preacher whose fiery sermons encourage blacks to remain “pure” and untainted by education, culture and politics.
When Sylvia returns to collect the school’s money from Mrs. Warwick, she is refused, but later, Mrs. Warwick changes her mind and sends the school fifty-thousand dollars.thousand dollars. Sylvia returns to Piney Woods, where Jacobs proposes. Sylvia refuses the offer, however, as she has fallen in love with Doctor V. Vivian, a young Boston man deeply committed to improving blacks’ social conditions.
Meanwhile, Larry, Alma’s stepbrother, a notorious gangster, flees police after killing another gambler in a card game. He escapes to Piney Woods and plans to swindle the poor blacks in the region by selling them stolen goods. Larry eventually encounters Sylvia, with whom he was once in love, and tells her that he will reveal her past to the school’s administrators if she does not steal the school’s money for him.
Distraught, Sylvia returns to Boston. Larry, meanwhile, has also gone back North and is shot while trying to rob a bank. When Dr. Vivian goes to the Prichards’ to tend Larry’s wounds, he meets Alma, who tells him about Sylvia’s past.
Flashback: Sylvia was adopted by the Landrys, a family of poor black southerners. When she was a young girl, the Landrys sent Sylvia to school, and the educated girl eventually discovered that her father’s landlord and employer, Philip Griddlestone, owed him $625.00. Armed with his daughter’s calculations, Mr. Landry goes to see Griddlestone, who rudely dismisses him. At that moment, a white laborer whom Griddlestone had earlier swindled, enters the room and shoots Griddlestone. Efrem, Griddlestone’s gossipy, meddlesome servant, screams through the town’s streets that Mr. Landry murdered his employer. A lynch mob is formed and the Landrys run away, taking refuge in the swamps. The manhunt continues for a week, and, frustrated that the Landrys had eluded them, the mob attacks and kills the traitorous Efrem, who had been gloating about how much the whites loved him. Mr. and Mrs. Landry and their young son Emil are captured. The parents are hanged and burned at the stake, but Emil escapes. Meanwhile, the real killer is accidentally shot by the mob. Griddlestone’s brother, Armand, follows Sylvia back to the home of her parents’ friends. Armand attacks Sylvia and tries to rape her, but sees a scar on her breast and suddenly realizes that Sylvia is his own daughter from his union with a black woman. Armand then pays for the girl’s education but never tells Sylvia that he is her father.
In the present, Dr. Vivian finds a distraught Sylvia and tells her that they must remember that their people fought in Cuba, Mexico and France for the freedom of their great country. Confident that once married Sylvia will be an excellent wife and a confirmed patriot, Dr. Vivian is not disappointed.
Within Our Gates was Oscar Micheaux’s earliest surviving directorial effort.
Within Our Gates stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained scenes of lynching and racial conflict. At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the Black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform. Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protesters against the film were black activists. By June 1920, the film was edited down, with much of its controversial material removed.
Sources: Turner Classic Movies