For a long time, black people together with their culture were grossly marginalized,l and their literature attracted little attention from the mainstream film and literature industry. This led to the emergence of black literature that championed for the social justice and equality in the country. It was a cry of recognition and the need of equality. The African American film criticism and commentaries were marginalized in both popular and scholarly histories and critical reevaluation as noted by the author of ‘Returning the Gaze’.
The exclusion of black critics in the mainstream led to an explosion of black American press that curved its niche in response to this exclusion. The black press continued to expand, and its pages were filled with the adverts placing emphasis on the films and movie industries. The reaction and the impact made by these black films were so great that even some of the white press and filmmakers took notice of the emerging market and involved themselves in a selective commentary and critics of the films.
The black press in the film making industry was creating a market of its own against a trend where various films and press in the mainstream industry were potraying Africans in a very negative way. At the same time, they were advancing and promoting the then stereotypes held by the whites towards the blacks.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ was a film produced and directed by D.W Griffith. This film exposed to a greater extent the deep racism that was there during that time. In its content, The Birth of a Nation cast the African American people in a dangerously negative way by portraying black men as being unintelligent and aggressive towards women. This was evidenced in the film, in two instances where black men tried to force white females to become their wives. As a result, one of the females jumped off a cliff and passed away. The other one fainted after another black man showed interest in forcefully taking her as his wife. This film also promoted the stereotype held by the majority of the white people against black people. The emergence of Ku Klux Klan, as a solution against the black power was seen in the movie. The film also promoted the ideologies that black people were violent and also advocated for violence means to counter them. This was done in the film by portraying Ku Klux Klan- a white man’s militia gang as a heroic and the only answer to deal with the black people.
There was a widespread outcry against the film both in the social circles and also in the artistic spheres of life. Many African American people hit the streets protesting against the film while accusing it of racism. Various cities were hit by the demonstration of the black people as they denounced the casting of the film
The film ‘Within our Gates’ that was written and directed by Oscar Micheaux portrayed the racial situation in the early 20th century. The century in was characterized by a widespread racism and racial injustices against the black citizens in America and this was reflected in the various films that were casted in that time. This film was a response to the ‘the birth of a nation’.
The film ‘Within our Gates’ explores the reality that is faced by the African American population. Against the widespread stereotype of sexual harassment perpetrated by black men towards white women, the film brings the opposite of the stereotype that in reality, the black women faces sexual harassment from the white men. This is manifested in the plot of the movie whereby after the mob had lynched all the family members of Silvia Landry, after they accused senior Landry of killing the infamous tycoon-Mr. Gridlestone, she narrowly escaped from being raped by Gridlestone’s brother- a white man. Silvia escapes the rape ordeal after Gridlestone realizes that she was his mixed race daughter- a product of his affair with a certain black woman. The Landry family had adopted and educated Silvia before they met their death in the hands of a white mob. The director of the movie tries to cast a light about the plight of the black women in the hands of the white men. It is seen that the white men even after having kids in an affair with African women, they would just neglect them to raise children on their own without having a fair share of responsibility in raising them. This is evidenced in the movie where Gridlestone left the mother of Silvia to bring up their daughter alone. The movie continues in showing how the whites would lynch the blacks without having any proof that they committed the alleged crime.
The response of the film was in a way that symbolized the national healing from racial injustices-a spectacle that almost the entire population of African American hoped for. They hoped for a day when the country would be freed from racial segregation and its bigotry. This union is symbolized by the marriage between a black woman and a sophisticated white man.
Another response to the white films of the 20th century seen in this black film of Oscar Micheaux is that the intelligent of someone is never defined by the color of the skin but by the content of one’s character and the depth of his/her heart. It is a mark of intelligence when a black woman endowed with empathy and the understanding of the plight of black people that she is compelled to help a piney wood school that was on the brick of collapsing. Piney wood school was school for black children run and managed by Rev. Jacobs. Out of a good heart, the school was saved from collapsing courtesy to a charismatic person notwithstanding her race or gender.
During the early 20th century and afterwards the black woman was viewed as inferior, and the only job one could secure was a servant in the white people’s homes. The film ‘Within our Gates’ tried to portray a black woman as coming of age since most of them could have a formal education and also had the capacity of contributing to the welfare of the society. This is evidenced in one of the plots of the film where Silvia Landry takes to herself the responsibility of saving the piney wood school from collapsing.
The opponents of ‘The Birth of a Nation’, advocated for a ban of that movie although it was not in reality banned. When Micheaux released his film as an answer to the ‘The Birth of a Nation’, the board of censors in Chicago rejected it. Many critics feared that the lynching and attempted rape scenes would spark interracial riots and violence in a city that was still tense from the riots of the July 1919. ‘Within our Gates’ was positively received by the audience across the racial divide against the expectations of the critics.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ was a tip of the iceberg in regards to the racism that existed in the century. The reaction to the racism that was perpetrated against the black journalist and actors were also echoed by Bert William and George walker. They rejected a black caricature that represented a burnt face with red lipstick applied on the lips to represent the black actors. These two actors protested and rejected what was known as the burnt-cork make up tradition that represented African American people in a negative way.
Lester Walton too reacted to the assertion of the producers of the white movies who in their films incorporated lynching scenes that they were meant for educational nature. He wondered what element of learning was found in the explicit scenes of a person meeting his death through burning while crying and moaning. In response essay, Walton argued that the lynching scenes shown in the moving pictures had the effects of implanting the seeds of intolerance that would lead to heightened tension that would cause an outbreak of violence. Walton called for the protest and rejection of the way film makers were portraying the African American people. He described the act of the film makers especially those that had the lynching scenes as an act of barbarism and argued the black people to take the responsibility of protesting against these moving pictures. He was concerned by the cinematic effect that came along with the lynching scenes which he described as the commoditization of human sufferings under the racial bigotry.
‘The Scar of Shame’ was a film that produced by Perugini’s in 1926 and released in 1929. Unlike the ‘The Birth of a Nation’ that portrayed African-American people as unintelligent and inferior and whose fate had been sealed just because their skin had the dark toning, the ‘The Scar of Shame’ film exposed the opposite. It was a film that portrayed all men and women being equal in the face of the opportunities presented to them. It showed that through education and human achievement, all men and women stood equal in contributing to the well being of the society. The film showed that black people destiny was not dictated by the color of their skin but by the personal desire of changing their current situation for the better. One of the things that were pulling the black race backwards and especially the black women was due to their lack of education as Alvin is seen commenting. According to Alvin in the movie, the injustices perpetrated against the black women were due to their lack of education. The film showed that black people had the chance of improving their social, economic status if they changed their way of thinking into a positive one. It also had a lesson for those who were higher in the rank of social statuses to help those who had fallen in the lowest level of the social ladder and who were held by the poverty from ascending up the ladder. Alvin filled with the pity toward Louise. He rushes to save her from the beatings she was receiving from her father.
This movie concentrates more on the freedom of mind and perception that not unless the black people liberate themselves from their way of thinking, the unrelenting forces of backwardness and poverty will always follow them.
In the film, the desire of a person was seen as a determinant of his/her success or the cause of his/her down fall. Louise due to her desire in hitting big in the music industry leads her in destroying her only chance of rising from poverty through Alvin. In the end, she hopelessly kills herself.
Everett, Anna. Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2001. Print.
Robinson, Cedric J. Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film Before World War Ii. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.