Oscar Micheaux's pioneering 1920 film advocated for African-American schools in the South. Info
As part of Cinematheque's "African-American Pioneers" February series at the Chazen, curated in conjunction with the Southern Rites photography exhibition, Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) will receive its second area theatrical screening in the last 12 months. (WUD Film screened it last year.) Micheaux's silent feature, one of the earliest surviving films by an African-American director, boldly advocates for black education in the South.
While an array of slightly hyperbolic characters populates its tortuous plot threads, the film's sustaining, principled heroine is Sylvia Landry (blues singer Evelyn Preer), a schoolteacher who shuffles back between the North and South in search of work and security. She answers a newspaper ad at the Piney Woods School, which is on the brink of closing—unless the school can come up with $5,000, it will fall victim due to overcrowding and the state's underfunding (still a familiar theme in American public education 100 years later).
By near-fatal happenstance, Sylvia encounters philanthropist Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who, racked with guilt and genuine interest in social equality, seems sympathetic to a Sylvia's request to help the school. Of course her plan and black civil rights in general meet with hostility from a disparate and duplicitous group of people who either distill the essence of white prejudice or tragically reinforce white supremacy, particularly in Within Our Gates' third-act flashback to the false accusations and chaos surrounding Sylvia's adoptive family. Amidst the wild tonal shifts and disorienting intercutting, Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky)'s latter-day score attempts to unify the events by blending Dixieland jazz drumming with ragtime piano, acoustic Americana, and even the occasional sampled beat. —Grant Phipps