Sunday, June 05, 2016

Within Our Gates

I had an amazing experience last night.  I attended a showing, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, of Within Our Gates, a 1920 silent film directed by Oscar Micheaux.  I don't normally go to any movies these days, although I've always had a soft spot for the great silents.  I went to this one because the film was accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, directed by Maestro Michael Morgan.  I've sung with the Symphony Chorus since 2000, although I don't sing in the Chamber Chorus that performed last night; I knew all the singers and some of the musicians.

If you've never seen a silent film accompanied by an orchestra, with or without chorus, you may not realize that the performers are seated with their backs to the screen.  In fact, a chorus member told me they weren't allowed to see the film.  Only the conductor can see the screen, and Maestro Morgan had to coordinate the action in the movie with the composer's score.  I might add that it was black as the inside of your hat in that theater, except for light from the screen; and silent movies don't generate the light that modern movies do.  As far as I know, the singers had memorized the score; I didn't see many music lights except for the orchestra.  The score they performed was a world premiere, composed by Adolphus Hailstork of Rochester, New York, who attended the performance.

Within Our Gates is the oldest surviving film made by an African-American director.  You can see a plot summary on the Wikipedia article I linked.  The film was released only 5 years after Birth of a Nation. Wikipedia suggests that "critics have considered Micheaux's project as a response to Griffith."

 I never thought I would see a movie, with an all-Negro cast (to use the period term), describing the lives of African Americans in 1920.  The main character, Sylvia Landry, seems "middle class."  She can read and write, she has nice clothes, she can afford to travel.  She lives in a nice house, she visits people and they visit her.  But in a flashback, we learn that she grew up on a plantation, where her illiterate father worked for the owner, and was lynched after someone else shot the owner and he was blamed for it.  Yes, there is a lynching scene, and an attempted rape. 

It's one thing to know, from reading, that people lived and thought a certain way, and that certain things happened.  Seeing it in a movie is a whole different experience.  It was jarring to see these things: 
  • A Southern woman tells a northern philanthropist, who was considering supporting a school to educate black children, that there was no point in educating Negroes, they were just good for "porters and field hands," and "they just want to go up to Heaven."  
  • A Negro preacher tells his congregation they will go to Heaven because they are poor and uneducated, while all the white people will go to Hell because they are rich and educated.  
  • The plantation owner complains to his servant that Sylvia (the daughter of his fieldworker) is educated and can work out what her father's debts really are, instead of what the owner wants them to be.  
  • And then, of course, there is the lynching.  No, they didn't show the actual hanging.
And on top of all this, it was a good movie.  The acting was as good as silents ever got, and better than some I've seen.  For instance, I've seen Metropolis, a great classic, but frankly the acting is awful; this was much better, more like you were watching real people.  The characters were presented fairly, there were good and bad Negroes, and good and bad white people.  It was another world, that I never expected to see.  I will remember it.