Today was the first day in quite a bit that I’ve felt that work was a little more under control. This has meant that while it has been a struggle to even fit one movie in some workdays, today I snuck in two without feeling overly pinched on time, albeit two shorter ones. While so far this month, my Black directed films have all been in within the last 50 years, the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set from Kino Lorber that I order came in, so today’s films come from another 50 years back.
Within Our Gates (1920, Dir. Oscar Micheaux)
If I’m going back in time to watch some early Black cinema, it only makes sense to start with the earliest, existing (Micheaux’s film The Homesteader was made a year prior but is now a lost film) feature film directed by a Black filmmaker. Important to note, that the film wasn’t just created by a Black man and staring a primarily Black cast, but also a decidedly Black story. That’s a bold decision for 1920 but one that treats the film well.
The film is headlined by Evelyn Preer, and it’s no wonder that she was considered one of the premier Black performers of the day. Her persona radiates throughout the picture so much that even through the silent medium her voice is always felt. This singular performance is amplified by a scripting decision that’s slightly less entertaining. The last 20 minutes of the film are an awkwardly placed flashback to Sylvia’s (Preer’s character) tragic backstory. The flashback could have worked earlier in the film, but where it is, it robs the movie of its climax. Still for the time, Within Our Gates is a remarkable piece of film history.
Body and Soul (1925, Dir. Oscar Micheaux)
After Within Our Gates, I kept the same Blu-ray in and jumped to another Oscar Micheaux film from five years later: Body and Soul. The first thing that stands out when comparing these two films is that the later doesn’t have Evelyn Preer and is for the worse for it. Julia Theresa Russell does a good job as Isabelle but lacks the instant charisma of Preer. In most other ways though, Micheaux makes good use of the five extra years of experience.
Body and Soul is a much more complex narrative than Within Our Gates, but the extra experience has allowed Micheaux to tell his story more clearly. There’s no third act backstory to obfuscate the climax here. Watching both films, I was extremely impressed by Micheaux’s mature filmmaking skills. The films both made extensive use of parallel editing in ways that I wouldn’t expect from anyone in the early 1920s. Both films may be important pieces of film History, but Body and Soul is the film that stands out.