To criticize a movie, you have to make another movie. — Jean-Luc Godard
It might be the most notorious climax in American cinema: A black man terrorizes a white woman, a black militia lays siege to a white family’s cabin, and the Ku Klux Klan rides in and saves the day. So concludes D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, America’s first blockbuster, the first film to be screened at the White House and the film responsible for reviving the KKK. Membership numbers were dwindling before Birth’s release, but enrollment soared following. For decades to come, the Klan would use the film as a recruiting tool.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, let’s meet Oscar Micheaux, a novelist and filmmaker born in Illinois in 1884. The son of slaves, Micheaux tried his hand at a variety of trades in Chicago before moving to South Dakota, where he bought land and worked as a homesteader. That work informed Micheaux’s writing, and in 1913, he published The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. Six years later, Micheaux adapted the work into his first feature, 1919’s The Homesteader, a film that’s since been lost.
That makes Micheaux’s second film, 1920’s Within Our Gates, the oldest surviving feature from a black filmmaker. And in honor of Black History Month, KinoNow.com is offering its 2016 restoration — featuring a new score from former CU Boulder artist-in-residence Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky — free for the month of February.
That should give you an idea of the historical significance Within Our Gates brings, not to mention the context in which Micheaux worked. Fewer films have cast a longer shadow than Birth of a Nation, both for subject matter and artistic merit. And both of which Micheaux riffs on in Within Our Gates, particularly in the movie’s stunning third act.
Getting there is a bit complex, though. Gates’ story involves multiple threads — from an educator, Sylvia (Evelyn Preer), heading north to raise funding for an impoverished school in the South, to a black preacher convincing his congregation not to covet white wealth or power and hold out for heavenly glory. The movement between the North and the South echoes Griffith’s structure in Birth, but it’s in the third act where Micheaux enters into an aesthetic conversation with Griffith.
As mentioned at the top, Birth culminates with Lynch (George Siegmann in blackface) attempting to assault Elsie (Lillian Gish) in one home while another family holes up in a besieged cabin. Griffith cuts back and forth between these parallel storylines, stitching them together with shots of the KKK riding to the rescue. Cross-cutting, they call it, and Griffith was a master. It’s easy to see why this movie excited the Klan so.
But where Griffith uses cross-cutting to show salvation, Micheaux uses the technique to underline the damnation of being black in America. Again, a woman is menaced, Sylvia, this time by a white man (Grant Gorman), but when Micheaux cuts away from Sylvia under attack, he finds no one riding to her rescue. Instead, we see the lynching of Sylvia’s parents at the hands of a bloodthirsty white mob. Where Griffith goes for rousing suspense, Micheaux targets stark horror.
As the story goes, Griffith had to be told why Birth of a Nation was inherently repugnant. Maybe there’s something to that: His best films were still ahead of him, and his next, Intolerance, plays like an apology. As for Micheaux, he was just getting started with Within Our Gates, and his follow-up, Symbol of the Unconquered, would also take aim at Birth by recasting the KKK as a band of marauding thieves using violence and intimidation to get what they want. All four are integral works of American cinema, but only one has been seen by hundreds of millions. It’s high time we fix that.