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Narrative Style in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates

From: Wide Angle
Volume 20, Number 4, October 1998
pp. 75-91 | 10.1353/wan.1998.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wide Angle 20.4 (1998) 75-91


"... I think that the past is all that makes
the present coherent and further, that the
past will remain horrible for exactly as long
as we refuse to assess it honestly."

James Baldwin
Everybody's Protest Novel


Within Our Gates is the title of Oscar Micheaux's rediscovered 1919 feature film. Restored in 1993 from a single known surviving print from Spain, the film adds new insight into the workings of Oscar Micheaux, an incredibly prolific African American filmmaker, writer, producer, novelist, and businessman. Since so few of Micheaux's estimated forty-eight feature films survive, it is difficult to generalize about the entire oeuvre. However, Within Our Gates is a stunning film, the first surviving feature by an African American director, and an example of his silent-era work. I wish to concentrate exclusively on Within Our Gates not as a fragment from an elusive career, but as a complex, self-sufficient text that stands alone.

Accounts of Oscar Micheaux's directorial style invariably address his rough approximation of Hollywood narratives; even the most sympathetic reviews cite the ways in which Micheaux was constrained as a director and therefore unable to construct a slick, seamless product. The obstacles that Micheaux faced were real and numerous, but they do not fully account for the complex structure of Within Our Gates. To assert that lack of funds or footage is the reason Micheaux does not adhere to the dominant shooting style of wide-medium-close shot established by D. W. Griffith seems to be missing the point. In Within Our Gates there is a finessing of material that is so complex it deserves a closer analysis.

A perfunctory glance at Within Our Gates tells the viewer that Oscar Micheaux bends the rules of classical Hollywood form to suit his own needs. He uses some conventional production practices, such as consistent screen direction and having actors enter and exit an empty frame for smoother continuity, yet abandons other standard techniques.

At the level of the narrative, the film does not flow forward in a linear manner. In addition, Within Our Gates mixes different genre styles, such as the melodrama, the gangster film, and the Hollywood romance; mainstream films adhere more strictly to genre form. What Micheaux has done in Within Our Gates is open up a codified form to create a space for a new kind of narrative, one that relies heavily on the interiority of the main characters.

Oscar Micheaux challenges dominant accounts of history and race relations by using an unusual filmic approach to single shots and to larger narrative construction. Briefly I will outline the salient qualities of the shot, and then proceed to a more extended analysis of narrative form in Within Our Gates.

The Tableaux Shot

Shots in Within Our Gates are best described as fitting into a tableaux style. Loosely, tableaux shots are filmed with a static camera at a "neutral" distance from the action (no extreme close-ups and few long shots). Usually subjects are centered in the frame and there is a single plane of action, with perhaps a neutral background. By putting his actors in the center of a static frame, Micheaux asserts the primacy of his characters. From the first shot he shows that African Americans will have full, uncompromised depiction.

Tableaux shots, with their shallow depth-of-field, focus viewer attention exclusively on the actors at center stage. The effect is what Gilles Deleuze calls a "rarefied" frame.

The big screen and depth of field in particular have allowed the multiplication of independent data, to the point where a secondary scene appears in the foreground while the main one happens in the background... or where you can no longer even distinguish between the principal and the secondary.... On the other hand, rarefied images are produced, either when the whole accent is placed on a single object... or when the set is emptied of certain sub-sets...

With Micheaux, at the level of the shot there is no competing information. This strategy of paring down the image results...

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