- The Birth of a Black CinemaRace, Reception, and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates
In the last decade, film scholars have focused an increasing amount of critical attention on Oscar Micheaux's 1920 silent film Within Our Gates as an important African American response to D. W. Griffith's notoriously racist film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Oscar Micheaux's landmark film provided a rebuttal to Griffith's depiction of black violence and corruption with a story of the injustices faced by African Americans in a racist society. While Griffith's film represents black male assaults on white female purity, Micheaux's film sets the historical record straight with its depiction of the attempted rape of a black woman by a white man. But the racial reversals in the plot of the film are not the only challenges that Within Our Gates poses to Griffith's film. Within Our Gates also counters The Birth of a Nation in the politics of its aesthetics, specifically in its very different use of parallel editing. Griffith's film uses crosscutting to present a very simple opposition between white virtue and black villainy; in contrast, Micheaux's film uses a complex editing pattern to present a larger social vision of many different, competing political positions within both white and African American society. The complicated style of Micheaux's editing works to constitute a spectator who is more politically critical than the spectator constructed by [End Page 111] the classical Hollywood style of Griffith's film. Sequences in Micheaux's film crosscut among five or six different locations and twice as many characters; as a result, Micheaux's film demands an engaged and thoughtful spectator to discern conflicting and contradictory social and political claims about the power structure of race relations in the United States. Moreover, the critical spectatorship constructed by Micheaux's film would have been encouraged by the context of silent film reception in black theaters throughout the country, where live jazz and blues performances did not so much accompany film screenings as compete with them for audience attention and response. In this way, black films and black theaters truly created an alternative cinema, an important and often overlooked tradition of film spectatorship and exhibition in the United States. With a live rescoring of Oscar Micheaux's landmark film, scholars and musicians from Ithaca College and the local community hoped to continue and further that tradition. A multimedia collaboration designed with the intention of encouraging an interactive audience reception, Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed accepted Micheaux's challenge to reanimate and rethink the experience of cinema.
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As both an aesthetic achievement and a cultural and political intervention, Griffith's infamous white supremacist film has a place in the history of Hollywood cinema. In histories of the aesthetics of Hollywood film, The Birth of a Nation is often cited as the first feature-length Hollywood film and as the culmination of Griffith's efforts to establish a set of rules of continuity editing to tell a coherent story of good and evil.1 While Griffith did not invent the film techniques of the close-up, the insert, and parallel editing, he was one of the first to integrate these techniques into an approach to filmic narrative, one that creates a highly melodramatic fictional landscape in which virtue triumphs over villainy. In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith uses all of these cinematic strategies to tell the politically charged story of an honorable Northern white family that historical circumstances have pitted against an equally honorable Southern white family to the benefit of violent, black social groups and political figures. The most often-cited example of Griffith's filmic method of moral storytelling is his use of [End Page 112] parallel editing at the end of The Birth of a Nation, when the Ku Klux Klan rides to rescue both the Stoneman and Cameron families from violently threatening black forces. In this instance of dramatic crosscutting, Griffith constructs a stark moral opposition between heroic whiteness and black corruption. Social critic...