Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Before I Die #539: Within Our Gates (1920) [Plus a few Oscar Thoughts]

Director: Oscar Micheaux

A powerful film, though challenging and controversial in several ways.

Within Our Gates tells several connected stories of individual African Americans striving to find success in various parts of the United States around 1920. Some are chasing far-reaching and noble goals such as eduation and social improvement. Others are far more concerned with personal wealth, financial gain, or the favor of powerful, racist white people.

The character most focused upon is Sylvia, a young woman in Boston who loses her fiancee through nefarious machinations of an associate. She then heads down to the South, where she becomes a teacher in a school for poor African American children. The school has extreme difficulty maintaining its funds, so Sylvia eventually returns to Boston to try and raise the money to keep the school open. Around all of this, several other African American and white characters come into play, most of them for their own ignorant, short-sighted and racist gains, but a handful exhibit a noble desire to help Sylvia.

The movie is most fascinating for the wide array of characters included, most of whom are meant to represent archetypes within U.S. society during the 1920s. We have several African American characters who make great effort to uplift themselves and others through education, while others prey on the fears and insecurities of their fellow blacks through scams, thievery, and self-interested pandering. The same panorama is seen of the whites in the movie - some seek to assist African Americans while others work to keep them as low as possible. There are even several characters who learn, grow, and change their thinking about race and race relations through the course of the film.

For a 95-year old silent film that takes on such a momentous subject, this movie holds up rather well. It stands out as a more circumspect and humanist counterpoint to D.W. Griffith's massive and sometimes misguided epic The Birth of a Nation from five years prior. One would still need to be able to embrace the silent film era a bit, due to its technical limitations, but it's not at all difficult to see why this is considered an all-time great movie.

You've got to love the "public domain" category. Due to it, you can legally watch this entire movie for free:

So that's 539 films seen. Only 623 to go before I can die...

The Oscars (a few quick thoughts)

The Oscars were last Sunday, and Birdman took home the main prize. I thought that it was completely worthy of it, being a singular work of artistic achievement. While Boyhood was also a brilliant and unique film, I felt that Birdman had a leg up in terms of the technical mastery it displayed, with the sustained shots and overall choreography of all of the actors and scenes.

Some seem to find that the ceremony was dull, but I hardly found it such. Neil Patrick Harris was excellent, and only a few of the comedy bits were duds (there are always at least a few). Harris is a do-it-all kind of host, and I hope he returns in the future.

It was also good to see more than a few thoughtful, meaningful speeches given upon acceptances of awards. Most notable was the speech given by Common (with John Legend looking on) while accepting the award for Best Original Song for Selma. While recipients have, for years, used the spotlight to raise awareness of social and political goals, I though he utilized it particularly well. You can watch it here: