Black History Month in Focus: Time Traveling with Oscar Michaeux

This is part of The Shadow League’s Black History Month In Focus series celebrating Black excellence in sports and culture.

“Their ambition is to belong to a dozen lodges, consume religion without restraint, and, when they die, go straight up to Heaven.”

— Geraldine Scranton, played by actress Bernice Ladd, from Within Our Gates

Time travel isn’t possible in the physical sense, but there are ways for us to travel back into the past. Certain paintings and sculptures are celebrated because they provide some insight into the mind of the artists of antiquity who put them together and a pigeon hole into that culture. The same can be said for the popularity of certain cars from the ’50s or the resurgence of hipster culture from the ’60s.

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Director Oscar Michaeux is widely recognized as the archetype of Black directors, with his first film Within Our Gates being released nearly 100 years ago in 1920. Released five years after the white supremacy lullaby The Birth of a Nation, Michaeux’s film reversed the concept of brutality and fault onto the oppressor. Though it is a fictional account of contemporary racism and Black struggle viewed nearly a century later, the messages therein are timeless.

Evelyn Preer, considered by many as the first Black film chanteuse, played Sylvia Landry, a southern girl visiting her cousin Alma in the North. We soon find that both Sylvia and Alma are in love with the same man, Conrad.

Alma decides to set Sylvia with her brother-in-law, a gangster named Larry. But Sylvia doesn’t love Larry and rebuffs his advances, advising him that she is already engaged to Conrad. So, Alma comes up with a plan to compromise the relationship between Conrad and Sylvia. If that’s not a scene straight off Real Housewives of Atlanta then I don’t know what is.

It’s a silent film so any viewer would do well to pay close attention throughout. Put down the cellphone, get off social media, and concentrate on the storyline as it reaches through the space time continuum to speak truth to modern audiences. Even the characters seem cut straight from our reality and pasted to the early 20th century like so much font.

The film contains themes of racial identity for mixed raced individuals, lynching as a terrorist tactic and liberal views toward Black folks juxtaposed against conservative views. The stereotypical black preacher who fleeces his flock with tales of the hereafter while accepting money from rich Whites to keep selling fairy tales. He is in stark contrast to another Black reverend who dedicates his life to helping the poor.  Also prominent in the film are the Black intelligentsia struggling to educate poor Black children due to lack of resources and institutional apathy.

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Man, this movie is so deep and in so many ways relevant to our current condition in America. Whenever someone tells me how far our country has come, I’ll point to this film as being indicative of how much further we still have to go.

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