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Watch the Oldest-Known Surviving Film by an African-American Director

Within Our Gates was Oscar Micheaux’s response to a racist classic

smithsonian.com

Between film corrosion and discrimination, a full 80 percent of silent movies made by African-Americans have been lost to history. But those that survived have some incredible stories to tell. The oldest-known, Within Our Gates, directed by Oscar Micheaux, is available to view online thanks to the Internet Archive.

Micheaux wasn't the first black director, but he was considered to be the "first black auteur" according to the New Yorker. However, despite being one of the early silent era’s most prolific and significant directors, Jan-Christopher Horak for the UCLA Film and Television Archive notes that most of his work has been lost to time.

Within Our Gates was listed as one of his missing films until a copy was discovered in the Spanish Film Archive in 1990, TCM writes. Restored by the Smithsonian Institute, it's considered to be one of Micheaux’s masterpieces, with Public Domain Review calling the film “a searing account of the US racial situation during the early twentieth century, including the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration of Southern blacks to cities in the North, and the emergence of the ‘New Negro’.”

The movie premiered in 1920, five years after D.W. Griffith’s incendiary epic, The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s movie was the nation’s first blockbuster; it was also a love story to the early days of the Ku Klux Klan and it featured racial stereotypes and white actors in blackface. When the movie—based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel and play, The Clansman—premiered, it faced the outrage of the black community, and was the focus of civil rights protests, boycotts and even bannings. It was so inflammatory that it was rumored to have fueled at least one murder.

In response, Micheaux made Within Our Gates, using a line from Griffith’s film as his title. Like The Birth of a Nation, it portrays a lynching and racial violence—but from a black perspective. Though it was made on a slender budget and aimed at a black audience, it became a rare crossover that found success with white audiences, too. That being said, Southern movie theaters boycotted the film, and it was only issued in a limited release because theaters feared violent reactions from white audiences during the lynching scenes.

Within Our Gates was presumed as lost for decades, until that single print called La Negra was discovered in Spain. Watching it today, it remains incredibly significant as both a document of black suffering and as a piece of silent film history. As SmartNews reported last year, historians are still working hard to reconstruct the vibrant, but largely forgotten past of African-Americans in silent film. What better way to celebrate their work than by heating up some popcorn and watching this timeless epic for yourself?

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