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Call and Response: The Narrative Politics of Precedent and Structure in Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates

Abstract

As the oldest surviving film by an African American director, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) has been the object of considerable curiosity as both a historical artifact and a formative work of Black art. Of particular interest is the densely intertextual nature of the film’s narrative, which takes substantial cues from many tropes common to race fiction of the early twentieth century. This is perhaps most clearly evidenced by the film’s opening hour, which plays out as a nearly exact specimen of the racial uplift stories that dominated the era’s Black literary scene, and by its final five minutes, which clearly replicate the marriage plots that defined contemporary women’s literature. Crucially, these allusions—and, more importantly, the optimistic racial and socioeconomic philosophies they entail—are complicated by the presence of a late flashback sequence whose traumatic contents, rife with brutal racial and sexual violence, seem diametrically at odds with the idealism that defines the rest of the film. This paper investigates this seemingly problematic tonal disjunction by seeking to examine the flashback in its proper narratological context, exploring its aesthetic roots in mediums as diverse as newsprint, novels, and lynch photography, in order to better understand the ways in which the flashback’s inclusion modifies—or even challenges—the film’s dramatic thesis. The argument is finally made that the flashback’s disruptive nature is in fact its greatest strength, generating a complex interrogation of the platitudinous narrative archetypes that define both the remainder of the film and the race literature of Micheaux’s time.

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