Friday, February 3, 2023

On Sunday: 'Within Our Gates' (and maybe a second feature) at the Somerville Theatre

From Oscar Micheaux's drama 'Within Our Gates' (1920).

Sunday, Feb. 5 takes me down to Davis Square in Somerville, Mass., for the relaunch of the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please!' series.

I'll accompany 'Within Our Gates' (1920), a "race drama" directed by Oscar Micheaux that's being screened in honor of Black History Month.

Showtime is 2 p.m. More details about the film and the full 'Silents, Please!' schedule are included in a press release pasted in below.

'Within Our Gates' is hailed as something of a breakthrough: it was the first U.S. feature-length film directed by an African-American. 

The movie was intended for "Black Only" movie theaters that flourished in certain parts of the U.S. during the Jim Crow era. 

Much of the product for that market was produced on shoestring budgets by small companies (many in Florida) that often vanished when the rent came due. 

As a young Black filmmaker, race movies were the only outlet open to Micheaux. Despite the limitations, he was aiming for something more, as seen in 'Within Our Gates.'

Unusual for its time, the film tackles head-on the racism that was pervasive in the U.S. at the time. 

A hundred years later, have things changed all that much? See the film, and decide for yourself.

The film will be shown via a 35mm print on loan from our friends at the Library of Congress. 

In shipping 'Within Our Gates,' the LOC included a 35mm print of a second film that we didn't specifically request.

It's 'The Other Woman's Story' (1925), a seemingly routine courtroom drama with absolutely nothing to do with Black History Month.

But then, as Paul Harvey used to say, there's "...the rest of the story." 

Turns out one of the lead actresses in 'The Other Woman's Story,' Helen Lee Worthing would shortly become infamous for...marrying an African-American!

This was at a time when interracial marriage was actually against the law in California and many other states. 

The resulting scandal and ongoing furor in the press not only caused the marriage to break down, but led to Worthing's involuntary commitment to an insane asylum a few years later. She died in 1948, at the young age of 52.

I won't say any more in case the theater does run the film. I hope they do. It's a rare chance to see one of Helen Lee Worthing's few surviving films—and I've never had a chance to do music for it before.

Cross your fingers!

*     *     *

A scene from 'Within Our Gates' (1920).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'Within Our Gates' on Sunday, Feb. 5 opens Somerville Theatre's 2023 'Silents Please!' series

First feature-length film directed by African-American to be screened in 35mm with live music to honor Black History Month

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—They're back where they belong: on the big screen.

Classic motion pictures from Hollywood's early days, shown using 35mm prints and accompanied with live music, mark the return of the Somerville Theatre's 'Silents, Please,' a long-running series at the Davis Square moviehouse.

The 2023 line-up kicks off on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m. with a screening of 'Within Our Gates' (1920), the first U.S. feature-length film to be directed by an African-American, Oscar Micheaux.

The movie—a ground-breaking drama that deals directly with racism in the U.S. as experienced a century ago—will be shown in honor of Black History Month.

The plot features an African-American woman who goes North in an effort to raise money for a rural school in the Deep South for poor black children. Her romance with a Black doctor eventually leads to revelations about her family's past and her own mixed-race, European ancestry.

Tickets $16; seniors/children $12. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call the box office at (617) 625-5700.

'Within Our Gates' was produced at a time when the mainstream Hollywood film industry was shut off to Black Americans.

Micheaux (at left, in a formal portrait) was able to self-produce 'Within Our Gates' on a shoestring budget and outside the studio system.

'Within Our Gates' portrays the contemporary racial situation in the U.S. during the early 20th century—the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Great Migration of Blacks to cities of the North and Midwest.

At the time, it was part of an emerging genre known as "race films"—pictures intended for segregated Black-only movie theaters that existed primarily in the U.S. south from the 1920s until after World War II.

The film portrays racial violence under white supremacy. It was produced, written and directed by Micheaux.

'Within Our Gates' stirred up considerable controversy during its original release because it contained a scene in which a Black man is lynched by a white mob.

At first the film, which eventually had its premiere in Chicago, was rejected by the Chicago Board of Movie Censors who were afraid the movie could possibly inspire a race riot. However, a second screening of the film by the press, Chicago politicians, and prominent members of the Black community convinced the Censors to grant the film a permit since it addressed horrendous conditions that needed reform.

Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however, and some of the most vigorous protests against the film came from Black activists.

Not surprisingly, white theatre owners in the south who catered to Black patronage were also offended by 'Within Our Gates' and refused to book it. One theatre owner in Shreveport, La., admitted "it was a very dangerous picture to show in the south" and his comment was typical for the region.

Micheaux, no stranger to controversy, refused to compromise his material despite being locked out of numerous distribution channels and went on to tackle other unpopular but equally topical problems in films like 'God's Stepchildren' (1938), in which a light-skinned African-American tries to pass for Caucasian, and 'Birthright' (1939), the story of a Black Harvard graduate who encounters opposition from both whites and members of his own race.

While Micheaux was well aware that audiences wanted to be entertained, he also felt it was his duty to confront challenging issues that would, in his words, "leave an impression" on audiences.

Michaeux died in 1951 at age 67, having independently produced a total of 44 films and earned a reputation as the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century.

For many years, 'Within Our Gates' was regarded as a lost film. However, a single copy turned up in Spain in the 1970s. The version to be screened at the Somerville Theatre descends from this single surviving copy.

The precursor to Black History Month was Black History Week, established in 1926 to coincide with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12 and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 14. Primary emphasis was placed on encouraging the coordinated teaching of the history of American Blacks in the nation's public schools.

In 1976, the expansion to Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government. At the time, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."

Following 'Within Our Gates,' the 'Silents, Please!' schedule features a broad range of titles, from well-known classics to obscure films rarely seen since their release, which in some cases was more than a century ago.

Several programs are double bills on a common theme, such as a July program saluting 'Canada Day' with two films set in the Canadian West. All films in the series will be shown using 35mm prints, with most on loan from the U.S. Library of Congress.

A roster of upcoming films includes:

• Sunday, March 5, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'Annie Laurie' (1927) starring Lillian Gish and 'Cinderella' (1914). Celebrate Women's History Month with a double feature of two films featuring leading ladies of early Hollywood. 'Annie Laurie' (1927), a rarely-screened MGM epic about warring Scottish clans, features silent-era megastar Lillian Gish as leading lady while legions of men in kilts do battle. Plus, an early adaptation of 'Cinderella' (1914) starring film industry pioneer Mary Pickford.

• Sunday, May 7, 2023, 2 p.m.: Buster Keaton 'Boats and Trains' Double Feature! Two Keaton classics in which Buster creates large-scale comedy with big machines. In 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928), Buster plays the effete college-educated son of a rough-hewn riverboat captain who must help his father fight a domineering businessman—who just happens to be the father of Buster's girlfriend. In 'The General' (1926), Buster's Civil War-era masterpiece tells the story of a Confederate railroad engineer whose train is hijacked by Northern spies.

• Sunday, July 9, 2023, 2 p.m.: Salute to Canada Double Feature! To mark "Canada Day" (July 1), we salute our neighbors with a double helping of vintage cinema set north of the border. In 'Mantrap' (1926), silent-era "It" girl Clara Bow stars in a battle-of-the-sexes comedy about a big city divorce lawyer hoping to get away from it all at a Canadian wilderness retreat. 'The Canadian' (1926) stars Thomas Meighan in the tale of a pioneering couple homesteading in Alberta, where they battle bad weather and financial woes.

• Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'The Fire Brigade' (1926). MGM’s blockbuster production stars Charles Ray as the youngest in a long line of fearless Irish American firefighters. Things get complicated when he falls in love with the daughter (May McEvoy) of a crooked building contractor. Spectacular fire sequences with hand-colored effects included in this recent Library of Congress restoration.

• Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, 2 p.m.: 'The Big Parade' (1925) starring John Gilbert, RenĂ©e Adoree. We salute Veterans Day with this sweeping saga about U.S. doughboys signing up and shipping off to France in 1917, where they face experiences that will change their lives forever—if they return. MGM blockbuster directed by King Vidor; one of the biggest box office triumphs of the silent era.

'Within Our Gates' (1920), a silent drama directed by Oscar Micheaux, will be shown in 35mm with live music on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass.  Tickets $16; seniors/children $12. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call the box office at (617) 625-5700.

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