Film Analysis of the Silent Movie Within Our Gates. Oscar Micheaux’s Portrayal of African Americans to counter Stereotypes of the Black Race

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

52 Pages, Grade: 1.0












The Chigaco Defender, being the preeminent weekly newspaper of that time promoting the case of the African Americans, heralded Oscar Micheaux’s second film production Within Our Gates in January 1920 as follows:

This is the picture that (it) required two solid months to get by the Censor Board and it is the claim of the author and producer that, while it is a bit radical, it is withal the biggest protest against racial prejudice, lynching and “concubinage” that has ever been written or filmed and that there are more thrills and gripping holding moments than was ever seen in any individual production. (…) People interested in the welfare of the Race cannot afford to miss seeing this great production and, remember, it TELLS IT ALL” (Chicago Defender, January 10th, 1920).

The movie Within Our Gates by Oscar Micheaux was completed in a heated time with strong racial confrontations (Bowser/Spence 125). The movie was filmed in 1919 in and around Chicago. Interior shots were photographed at the Capital City Studios (McGilligan 139). The production of the movie was finished in 1920. The movie is one of the most important so called ‘race pictures’. This classification of movies comprises about 500 film productions by black artists for black audiences being made between 1915 and about 1950. Race pictures were screened in special theatres of which there were only about 105 at the time. On the other hand, white movies could count on a distribution network of about 15.000 theatres giving these productions much more financial clout (Cripps 120). Race pictures are part of a wider cultural movement referred to as Harlem Renaissance. It lasted for a period of about twenty years from 1918 to 1937 (Hutchinson) and started in Harlem, giving it its name. Harlem was at the time the most elegant black community in the western world due to growing numbers of inhabitants as well as astute transactions of black businessmen. Many black intellectuals found their new home in Harlem. They thought of Harlem as something special and saw themselves as part of the reawakening of a dormant culture defined by historians as ‘renaissance’ (Huggins 3). Culture was seen as the true measure for civilization and a period of remarkable artistic activities started. Through novels, poems, plays and symphonies as well as movies most Harlem intellectuals tried to portray a positive selfimage of black people. By highlighting black achievements, intellectuals and artists tried to remove inequalities between blacks and whites. Reasonable men could see that black people were capable of similar cultural achievements as white people. This new image of African Americans was referred to as the “New Negro”. It was characterised by W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading militant propagandist for the cause of African Americans, and Alain LeRoy Locke, a professor of philosophy who is often described as “The Father of the Harlem Renaissance” (Carter), as being educated, self-confident and determined. From Harlem the concept of the New Negro could spread and the black voice be heard (Huggins 14).

On the other hand, only few black intellectuals addressed problems such as crime, violence and the poverty of the black people (Huggins 4). One of the exceptions being Micheaux who openly turned to the situation and troubles African Americans were facing. Micheaux’s stories and characters were widely passed around through magazine articles, other movies or texts. They contributed to the shared experience of African Americans of the time (Bowser and Spence 126). It can be assumed that race movies especially had a strong impact on this experience as they were targeting the black masses whereas literary works aimed at the better educated. Many of the literary leaders of the Harlem Renaissance were actually hostile towards race movies or did not know about them and Micheaux could be considered a castway from the Harlem Renaissance community (Bowser et al. XXVIII). Out of the total oeuvre of race movies only about 100 films survived. From the twenty silent movies made by Micheaux only three still exist today one of them being Within Our Gates. The film was considered lost before being rediscovered under the title La Negra in the Filmoteca Espanola in Madrid with Spanish subtitles (Bowser et al. XXIII). It is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The movie can be regarded as Micheaux’s most political film and is widely seen as a direct response to the popular film The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915. It was produced by the most successful white filmmaker of the time David Wark Griffith. In this more than three hours movie white supremacy is emphasized and black characters are portrayed in a stereotypical way supporting the image of the bad, obedient and submissive negro.

The objective of this thesis it to analyse how Micheaux used various cinematic methods in his race movie Within Our Gates to create a new image of African Americans’ standing in stark contrast to Griffith´s characterization. This thesis will provide answers to the following research question:

How and with which filmic devices does Micheaux create a counternarrative and countertypes to Griffith's racist representation?

Based on literature research this thesis will commence with a description of the stereotypes used by Griffith and by other white filmmakers. This will be followed by an analysis of the concept of the “New Negro” focusing on the main traits and characteristics of this opposing image of African Americans. The theoretical part will be concluded by an elaboration of how the counternarrative is constructed by Micheaux and which countertypes he used in Within Our Gates. In the following and final part of this work, an analysis of the movie will be conducted based on the available film stock by the author. With selected scenes, it will be demonstrated how various characteristics attributed to the “New Negro” are represented and depicted in the movie. The analysis is conducted under consideration of film style and technologies available at a time when film production was still a nascent discipline. The film analysis will be based on the author’s own observations, as well as existing literature on black movies. It should be noted that the version of the movie available for the analysis has been truncated after production to comply with the demands of censor boards. As only a Spanish copy of the film survived, intertitles had to be translated back to English.


As Micheaux´s work was heavily influenced by his own lifetime experiences and his personal views on the status and future development of the black race, a brief outline of his life is given with a focus on his accomplishments as a filmmaker. Oscar Micheaux started his artistic career not as a film producer and director but as a novelist. He possessed many talents and after leading an ordinary life he appeared on the artitstic scene with his first novel without any previous experience or formal training. After concentrating at first on literary work, he moved on to make silent movies for a period of twelve years. In the third and last period of his career he finally concentrated on sound films while also working as a novelist.

Oscar Micheaux was born on the 2nd of January 1884, in the hamlet of Metropolis in the Northern state of Illinois to Calvin and Bell Micheaux, who would eventually have eleven children. The parents possessed a plot of land on which the father worked hard to make a daily living for himself and his family. While the father could not read or write, the mother cared very much about books and education. She tried to pass on her appreciation of education and high ideals to her children using Booker T. Washington, the Great Educator, as a role model. Oscar Micheaux received his eduction in Metropolis in a school that was for coloured children only, segregation being the policy adopted by most municipalities in Illinois at the time. He later complained about the restrictions of his school education with inadequate teachers, overpopulated classrooms and derelict buildings. Despite these personal experiences, he later went on to praise teachers in his books and films (McGilligan 2). At the age of seventeen he left Metropolis to work in different towns, first in a car manufacturing plant, and later in a coal mine. After these brief working stints, he settled in Chicago to live with his older brother. Having worked in different other low paying jobs he got employed as a porter in a Pullman sleeping train. Micheaux quickly moved up the ranks and managed to accumulate considerable savings through tips and petty wrong doings supported by a thrifty life style. After leaving the Pullman Company he moved on to South Dakota and used some of his savings to purchase land where he began to farm and write for several years (McGilligan 15). Based on this experience as a farmer in the West he wrote his first big novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer which he self-published in 1913. His second novel The Forged Note, similarly to his first novel, is full of his social observations and his political persuasions praising among others, W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1917 he releasedhis third novel The Homesteader. As Micheaux often said his goal was to encourage his readers and audiences to live a life of hard work and discipline leading to financial success. They should follow the example of his fictional male characters, which were based on himself and his life´s experiences (Cremins 156).

Oscar Micheaux started his career as a filmmaker in 1918, in order to produce a big screen version of the The Homesteader after being approached by two film producers. He refused their offer and decided instead to establish The Micheaux Film Corporation to produce his own movies. The company soon became the most successful black movie firm in the US and internationally. It can be assumed that Micheaux had seen Griffith´s racist movie The Birth of a Nation and was aware of the call of various newspapers for a filmmaker to make a movie as a response to this insult of the black race (McGilligan 109). He followed this call with the production of Within Our Gates. In his film productions Micheaux was always restrained by a tight budget. He could not film a scene many times and was forced to improvise as he went along. But still under these considerable restraints Micheaux managed to create breathtaking cinematic effects such as his often-stunning climaxes (McGilligan 143). In his near forty movies, out of which half can be considered silent, as well as novels Micheaux challenged the prevalent image of African Americans as being submissive and inferior to white people by developing portrayals of the “New Negro”. His way of addressing race issues in a complex and multifaceted way could not be matched by any of his contemporaries (Bowser et al. XXVI).


The representation of African Americans in movies such as Griffith´s The Birth of a Nation as well as other art forms was mainly based on simplifying stereotypes. These will be described in this chapter, to later draw a comparison with Micheaux´s countertypes. When watching movies, black Americans were aware that these were maintaining white supremacy (Hooks 95). The image of African Americans given in film as well as literature was in general unfair and inaccurate, supporting at first the myth of inferiority and later of the innate brutality of the black race. With the conception of certain stereotypes distinguished by appearance, mindset and way of life, the image of African Americans was manifested in the public (Noble 7-8). In 1909, with the film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe´s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom´s Cabin black stereotypes built on the subservience of African Americans were first established in cinema. As stated by the famous black film historian Donald Bogle: “All were merely filmic reproductions of black stereotypes that had exsisted since the days of slavery and were already popularized in American life and arts” (4). Stereotypes such as “The Tom”, “The Mammy”, “The Mulatto” and “The Coon” portrayed African Americans as good natured and incompetent figures lacking intelligence, not meaning to do any harm and often behaving immaturely like children. They rendered African Americans as inferior human beings and directors used them to make fun of coloured men and women. These characters were meant to entertain by often further exaggerating their negative traits (Bogle 4). Instead of developing fully human roles for black characters classical Hollywood films provided only stereoptypes within their restrictive narratives (Cavell 33-34).

D.W. Griffith´s movie The Birth of a Nation released in 1915 was in great part devoted to showing African Americans as brutal, malicious and villainous characters that had to be feared which is best exemplified by the additional stereotype of “The Black Buck”. The movie earned highest praise among film critics for its aesthetic and artistic value and had a strong influence on its audience (Stokes 3). It is seen as a milestone in film history and helped to establish movies as an art form. With its confinement of black men and women in merely supporting roles such as servants or criminals, as well as in certain spaces such as kitchens, it became a guide for Hollywood for the representation of the black race (Diawara 3). The movie starts before the American Civil War explaining the introduction of slavery to America. It moves on to wartime and stretches into the time of rconstruction chronicling the fate of the Camerons, a white Southern family, and the Stonemans, a family from the North. African Americans feature mainly as servants of these two families and are seen as the destructive element behind the split of the nation along with white abolitionists. At first slaves are shown lazily drowsing in the field, even declining to do their work. They are depicted consuming alcohol and harassing white women. After the victory of the North in the Civil War the picture changes and white Southerners are now threatened by their plundering and raping ex-slaves. They are portrayed as dangerous if set free from the suppression and control of their white masters (Wallace 60). This characterisation of African Americans typifies the worst racial stereotypes and clichés. Whereas on the other hand, white members of the Ku Klux Klan are acting as would-be heroes that are rescuing the South from the black oppression in the film.

Following a brief description of the prevalent stereotypes in general as well as in Griffith´s movie is given:

“The Tom” image portrays slaves as happily submissive people. It represents the good Christian slave. A Tom is always old. He is smiling and uneducated. He is faithful and eager to work hard and has no ambitions to equal his white masters. His only ambition is to be praised. Even when treated harshly or unjust a Tom remains faithful and obedient. Tom figures are often insulted, molested and pursued by their master. Still with their impassive and selfless character they always stay kind, pleasing their superiors as well as the white audience (Bogle 6). The most famous and earliest example is Uncle Tom from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who was seen at the time of publishing, with his humility and brotherly love, as a statement against slavery (Noble 32). In Griffith´s movie the figure of “The Tom” is embodied by a servant of the Camerons, the Southern white family, who is characterised as lacking self-confidence and being dependent on the support of his master. The black servant is virtuous and faithful to his master and shows his loyalty by helping him when being arrested by supporters of the Republican Party even using physical force. Various times in the movie Griffith gives an example of these “good” blacks that cling to their masters and prefer slavery (Noble 37).

“The Mammy” is the most derogating and damaging image of black womanhood in American mass media. It shows black women as the opposite of the conception of desired American womanhood (Jewell 10-12). “The Mammy” is the female equivalent of the Tom. Like the Tom, a Mammy is always submissive and obedient to her master while being content with her domestic duties. The Mammy is usually depicted as obese, possessing masculine characteristics, being argumentative and ignorant. This image is picked up by Griffith with the female servant of the Camerons. She is very dark skinned, obese, middle aged and wears a head cloth. The female servant is also submissive and faithful to their master. In one scene, her behaviour is laid bare as quarellsome and her mood as being quick-tempered.

“The Mulatto” is of direct descent from an interracial couple. Since the mulatto has some white blood, this person is defined as someone likeable and nice, ”that could have been productive and happy had [they] not been a victim of divided racial inheritance” (as quoted by Bogle 9). In the The Birth of a Nation, the female mulatto figure is represented by Lydia Brown a servant of the Stoneman family. The Stonemans treat her like a white person and her physical apperance is pretty while wearing nice dresses. Nonetheless, she is lacking a sense of belonging. She is striving to be part of the white society becoming a mistress of one of the Stonemans but is again and again reminded of her black blood by the behaviour of other whites who do not treat her as an equal human. Lydia is portrayed as being hungry for sex and is caught by fits of laughter and lust that force her to the ground. In The Birth of a Nation, the mulatto woman is depicted as scheming, dangerous, threatening and yearning for revenge against the white populace. She is demonised and held responsible for influencing Stoneman to support racial equality that led to the unwanted disorder in the South.

“The Coon” figures as the fool who behaves ridiculously, like a clown. His purpose is to amuse others. “The Coon” exists in various variants, like for example the Pickaninny, which gives a stereotypical image of black children. They are harmless, disheveled, cute little beings with popping eyes often behaving like nut-cases. An example is given by the slavechild Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin whose hair is often done in an asymmetrical way. By transfering this clown role and its characteristics to adults the typical Coon was created (Bogle 6). In The Birth of a Nation slaves are shown clumsily dancing while being full of joy to the amusement of their masters. Their disheveled and barefoot children participating in the dance resemeble the Pickaninny figure.

“The Black Buck” is violent and cruel. Moreover, he is characterised as a single African American person who is big, dark, mostly feared by white men, and sexually attracted to white women (Bogle 15). In The Birth of a Nation the Black Buck figure is used in various scenes portraying these black characters as a violent threat to white people. Gus, a former servant of the Camerons, is a hard-drinking and swearing villain even urging the white woman Flora to jump off a cliff for fear of being raped by him.

All the prevalent stereotypes of African Americans were used by Griffith. With Toms and Mammies happy with the status under their white masters and Bucks and Mulattos posing a threat to this order. His black characters stuck to these simplistic and limiting images and were lacking any deviating complex thoughts and reactions (Jackson 223). By manifesting with the audience the backward and inferior image of black people and their status in American society, Griffith is making a point against equality between the black and white races. Among African Americans the movie led to an outcry because of its strong racism againts black people. As Hopkins wrote in 1915 in the newspaper The Atlanta Constitution the movie “was not only an insult to the colored race but was an incentive to race hatred and to lawlessness” (Hopkins 4). .


This chapter will give examples for counterimages that were drawn up by African American intellectuals in various art forms. They most likely influenced Micheaux and may have been included in his images of the countertypes in Within Our Gates. Already since the 17th century black intellectuals fought against stereotypes and prejudices about black people by constructing counterimages. Those efforts were expressed in various art forms such as literature and plays and continued until culminating later in the Harlem Renaissance. In literature alone almost seventy-five novels were already published by black writers between 1867 and 1871 (Gates and Jarrett 3). In contrast to the image of black people living under the oppression of slavery, the term “New Negro“ was coined summarising the characteristics and traits of the aspiring black race. It emerged in a time of rising optimisim and desire for self-invention among African American intellectuals. “New Negro” can be seen as a metaphor for the change in the lives and status of African Americans as well as a new way of thinking within the coloured community which was prepared to fight for their rights and equal status in society. The image of the “Old Negro” had to be left behind and to be replaced by a new irresistible public face of the race. The “New Negro” was an emerging concept and no specific date can be specified for its creation. But its most important period lasted until World War II (Favor 3).

In 1885, the newspaper The Cleveland Gazette described this new class of coloured people as edcucated, refined and possessing money. In the same year, the African American intellectual J. W. E. Bowen in An Appeal to the King focuses on the racial consciousness which became another defining characteristic of the “New Negro“ later picked up in the Harlem Renaissance (Gates and Jarrett 10). In 1900, the educator, writer and political advisor Booker T. Washington tried to bring to the foreground individual achievements of sixty black people in diverse areas such as military, literature or science in a 428 page strong compendium subtitled “An Accurate and Up-to-Date Record of the Upward Struggles of the Negro Race” (Washington) highlighting achievement as a further determining characteristic of the black race in the new century. In Washington’s book again and again the idea of progress is emphasized as the “New Negro” leaves behind his slavery past. The intention of those writers was not only to change the perceptions within the white scociety but also to give a new self-respect and race pride to the coloured people. This seemed necessary as Fannie Barrier Williams, the famous women’s right advocate, wrote in an essay on coloured women: “The consciousness of being fully free has not yet come to the great mass of the colored women in this country“ (382). In her writing about Negro women´s clubs she empasizes the pivotal role of black women and the need for self-help.

A few years later clergyman and civil rights activist John H. Adams, Jr. published two essays in the literary journal Voice of the Negro describing the physical appearance of black women and men. The first essay shows pictures of ideal women thereby delivering visual prototypes for the “New Negro” woman. For example, one of the pictures shows a black woman as an admirer of Fine Art, a violin and piano player, as well as a singer, an essay writer, a lover of good books, and a home-making girl (Adams 323-26). In his second essay, Adams gives similar pictures of black men showing them as tall, erect, commanding, with a strong expressive face while still being witty, pleasing and handsome (Adams 323-26).

With the end of the First World War black radicals called for a more militant stance of the black race. The “New Negro” should not ”turn the other cheek” as the ”Old Negro” did and instead answer violence with violence: They should stop being meek and unassuming and fight for their right to total equality between the races (Huggins 53). Black activists, like W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most famous civil rights spokesman, began to attack “the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois “The Souls of Black Folk” 9). They tried to find a solution to the race problem and promoted the equal inclusion of African Americans in society including not only economical opportunities but also political rights thus supporting to shape the “New Negro” image. For women, Du Bois demanded that they “must have a life, work and economic independence. She must have knowledge” (Du Bois “Darkwater” 86).

In 1925, Alain Locke published the two collections “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” and “The New Negro: An Interpretation” constructing a romantic image of the “New Negro”. He left behind earlier images where fighting and political radicalism were central to the advancement of the race. Locke thought that the transformation of the black people would not come through politics but through achievements and progress in fine arts. He and other intellectuals hoped that social and political change would be triggered by artistic achievements. He also speaks of ”renewed self-respect and self-dependence” (Locke 4) that will help the race to start a new phase of development. Locke highlights the importance of professional black men working in fields such as clergy, law or medicine, to take on a leading role in this process. The intelligent man must know himself and his value in society and is therefore inclined to scientific interests (Locke 7). The “New Negro” is self-reliant, renounces social dependence, contributes to society and believes in ”esteem and recognition” (Locke 10). How far the race has left behind its shackles of the past could be measured by the achievements in professional work. These were symbolising the new freedom of the black man (Huggins 63). Another example is given in a poem by Reverdy C. Ransom (1923), which expresses the abilities of African Americans in varous fields of society as well as their right to an equal status:

“ (...) Behold him! Dauntless and unafraid he stands.

He comes with laden arms, Bearing rich gifts to science, religion, poetry and song ...

… And walk as princes of the royal blood divine.

ON EQUAL FOOTING, everywhere with all mankind” (Spencer 453).

Also, visual artists contributed to the creation of the image of the “New Negro”. In 1928 the New Gallery opened in New York with the painter Archibald J. Motley, Jr. the first one-man show of a negro artist. The cover of the exhibition catalogue showed the picture “A Mulatress” indicating the important role of the mulatta for the development of the new image. As the woman shown on the painting with her fiery appearance the mulatta was often depicted in visual art and literature as a figure arousing sexual desire both inter- and intraracial, often being the victim of incest, sadism and rape. On the other hand, the mulatta was used to signify central aspects of the “New Negro” movement such as propriety, domesticity and civilisation. Thereby passing beyond the boundaries of race, class and gender (Sherrard-Johnson XIII). For example, in the picture “A Mulatress” various signs of class such as a vase filled with flowers in the background of the central figure are shown as evidence of uplift and class advancement. According to researcher Sherrard-Johnson, the mulatta figure was used within the Harlem Renaissance movement “as an imaginative alternative to the dominant racial discourse of the time” (XVI) because of her ambivalence and volatility. The figure often embodied opposing characteristics such as Victorian womanhood, the modern and independent woman as well as seductress of black and white men alike (Sherrard-Johnson XIX). Audiences and film critics met the image of the mulatta with ambiguity. On the one hand, it was criticised for imitating ideals of white beauty, while on the other hand, being praised for undermining Hollywood’s negative image of black women (Sherrard-Johnson 79).

For Oscar Micheaux racial uplift and class advancement were an essential part of his image of the “New Negro”. He was influenced by the ideas of Booker T. Washington and favoured economic progress over political influence (Green Straight Lick 217). Micheaux himself said that Washington “injected his ideals into my pictures” (Bowser “Micheaux and his Circle” 255). In his movies, African Americans that have advanced to the middle-class are well educated, articulate and possess a broad literacy. They are thoughtful and even intellectual. Their advancement is built on their self-reliance and work ethic as well as entrepreneurial ambition. In their political views, they are conservative, patriotic, loyal to their race but with ethnical tolerance. They value fair play, trust and frankness. They have an urban sophistication and wear well-tailored clothes (Green Straight Lick 31).

Whereas all Micheaux’s heroes and heroins are characterised by the traits listed above, their mostly black antagonists in his films conform to the image of the old stereotypes. The figures epitomising the “New Negro” in Micheaux’s movies often wear the trappings of ecomomic success such as business suits or evening dresses and live in nice houses or appartements. However, their disdained opponents often have even more extravagant clothing (Green Straight Lick 69) and are lacking the refined style and behaviour of the favoured characters. Micheaux’s black role models often show altruistic self-sacrifice and are set against black figures that are deceitful and disloyal (Green Straight Lick 111). In his portrayal of black womanhood “The Mulatta” is employed by Micheaux in various race films. Through those images constructed by independent black filmmakers the black viewer could chart the progress of the race to racial equality on the big screen (Hooks 95).

Overall, it can be stated that the “New Negro“ image drawn up and endorsed by African American intellectuals was highly idealistic and propagandistic. Their portrayals were based on an isolated upper class of the black society that led a very different daily life than their ordinary black compatriots. By focusing on the potential and characteristics of the upper class there was the danger of neglecting abilities and more basic aspirations of black people belonging to the lower classes.


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Film Analysis of the Silent Movie Within Our Gates. Oscar Micheaux’s Portrayal of African Americans to counter Stereotypes of the Black Race
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Anglistik)
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Film, Englischer Film, Oscar Micheaux, Filmanalyse, Race, Amerikanischer Film, Griffith, director
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Carmen Kurz (Author), 2017, Film Analysis of the Silent Movie Within Our Gates. Oscar Micheaux’s Portrayal of African Americans to counter Stereotypes of the Black Race, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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