S1: Hello and welcome to another episode of Flashback, Slate’s podcast about Polder and classic movies. This time around, we are going to be talking about Oscar Micheaux’s 1920. I’m going to call it an epic, even though it’s only 79 minutes long. Because there’s so much going on in Within our Gates, the silent movie that is our subject this week.
S2: And I’m joined, as always by Kay Austen Collins, film critic of Vanity Fair, out there in his bedroom somewhere. Hello, Kam.
S3: Hi. How’s it going?
S4: As well as can be expected in these weird times. I feel like we need to acknowledge that every time, even though everyone is in that same situation. So as always, also, I want to note that our audio may sound different, like we’re in two different places which we are, or like you have construction going on outside your apartment today.
S3: Yes, sorry about that. New York has reopened and a consequence of that is resuming construction. We’re doing our best.
S4: We’re trying. We’re making our way through the thicket within our gates.
S3: We’re trying. OK.
S4: At any rate, I’m really glad to be talking about this movie, which is incredible and which I hadn’t seen in something like 25 years. I mean, since it was found in the 90s, I remember seeing it at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley when it was being unveiled. You know, after having been found and restored, after having been lost for decades and had not seen it since then, it could not be a more timely film. I honestly feel like if this podcast had happened two or three weeks ago, we would be having a completely different conversation than the one we’re going to have today.
S3: Yeah, it’s an interesting film to be watching right now. And also for me, coming so quickly on the heels of a new Spike Lee movie. You know, Spike Lee throughout his career has been accused of, you know, didacticism and all these things. And a helpful thing about watching this show is it helps you put a lot of that style of political filmmaking, or at least for me, in contexts like there is a tradition of didacticism within films by, you know, women, black people, people making films in the silent era who are very explicitly making movies that were starting arguments with the culture. You know, it kind of helps you put that stuff in context and appreciated it a bit more, I think. Like the value of baked activism, which definitely this movie I think exemplifies from a 19.
S2: Right. I mean, I haven’t seen the new Spike movie yet, but it occurred to me while you were saying that that Spike Lee should make a biopic of Oscar Micheaux without perfect territory for him would be fantastic.
S4: And as far as didacticism, I mean, this movie is often talked about as if it were a response to birth of a nation made five years earlier by D.W. Griffith, which Oscar Micheaux explicitly said it was not. But you want to talk about didacticism, right? I mean, D.W. Griffith is coming from mainstream culture, so he’s not thought of as advocating for some sort of point of view. But, I mean, if there’s any movie that sets forth an ideological set of premises about race, it’s birth of a nation. Yeah, it is a much more character focused movie. I mean, watching this, I just kept thinking, you know, leaving aside many other comparisons we could make between them, but just that this movie has so much of a better main character. Right. I mean, the character of Sylvia just drives this movie in a way that I think takes it really beyond a movie that’s only putting forward ideas about a society. You know, I mean, it really is the story of a person and of a woman in a way that, you know, there were not a lot of movies being made by white people in 1920 that would center a woman in that way.
S3: Yeah, and it’s structure which we’re gonna, you know, of course, talk about because it’s it’s so apparent. It’s hard not to talk about, but the way that it kind of delves deeper and then all of a sudden very deeply into her life and the conditions of her beliefs and her ideas and her motivations and her desires. It’s got a lot going on in the way that it even just makes sense of this character. There’s a lot in this film, and I have to say I haven’t seen it in a number of years as well. But it is a lot more exciting than I remember it being like it’s really from the opening just at a fast clip. You’re immediately like, oh, well, already a lot of balls in the air.
S4: Yeah. Something that I hadn’t realized until researching this show is that Oscar Micheaux was also a novelist. He wrote seven novels during his life and his first film, which is now lost. This is his second was based on his own novel. But this movie has such a novelistic kind of structure. Right. It’s got flashbacks within flashbacks and people telling stories. And then you see the entire story they’re telling rendered is a film within a film. It just the way that it episodically leaps from thing to thing. And nest’s those things inside different characters, points of view or memories is extremely novelistic and complex.
S3: Yeah. And really modern. And I’m glad we chose this because I think like the category of silent films that everyone knows, you know, it’s like Metropolis and Sunrise and that’s brought to you in that category at film that people who don’t even love silent film all agree hours among. Great films. But then they’re just strange films like this one that don’t have the same amount of Polish but do have like a real sense of power and intention and artistry. And this film is just for me is just like intellectually kinetic, just the things that are going on in this. I think it’s as satisfying as those glossier, better funded, you know, technically perhaps like more adept, but not necessarily to my mind, superior films that we tend to talk about by people like D.W. Griffith. And I don’t just mean birth of a nation, which it does sort of hover behind this movie. But, you know, D.W. Griffith was credited so much in terms of film innovation. And I think Oscar Micheaux is someone who, because so many of his films were so hard to see because he was a black filmmaker and mostly written about in the black press and things like that just hasn’t been talked about in the same way. But you watch a film like this and it’s like flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s just so complex and ahead of its time. In my opinion.
S4: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as for the lack of Polish, but let’s start out maybe with a little conversation about Oscar Micheaux and who he was and where he was at this point in his life and career, because the fact that he was able to make a movie with this degree of Polish and this high of a budget and this big of a cast is extraordinary. I mean, there are moments when it feels a little bit choppy or there’s sort of continuity problems or it feels a little bit like an earlier film. Right. I mean, if it were a mainstream, i.e., white made movie, it feels maybe more like it was from nineteen twelve, 1913. Right. It has those moments. But in terms of the sophistication of its concept, I feel like it’s as big as birth of a nation or one of those big D.W. Griffith epics. Right. I mean, can’t afford that level of cast and, you know, 200 horses riding over a hill or whatever it is. But the way that he uses crosscutting, the way down kind of continues to expand his story outward into these larger, larger concentric circles is every bit as ambitious. But do you want to talk a little bit about who Oscar Micheaux was and where this movie stands in his life?
S3: Yeah, well, I think as we mentioned when you chose it, this is the first surviving film of his that we had. But it’s its second film. Its first is called The Homesteader, and was, I believe, based on one of his own novels. It came the year before. It was 1919. That was a year of Chicago race riots and sort of the context in which he is working at this point.
S2: And he’s in Chicago. Right?
S3: Right. And this isn’t either right. I think his father was born a slave, as I recall. And overall, I think his white lineage descends from French Huguenots, which explains the name. And I think he led a really interesting life along shuts of his life, for example, was working as a Pullman porter. But he also, at some point worked in South Dakota, largely among lower class whites, which I think is really interesting in terms of some of the things that happened in this film. And he was just like a really first of all, a controversial filmmaker whose films were often poorly reviewed or not well received because he so adamantly made films about things that were taboo to put on screen, particularly if you are black filmmakers like even after birth of a nation. It was a big deal for in this movie Oscar Micheaux to depict from a black perspective the terror of racialized sexual threat for terror of lynching. You see in this film a lot of the ideological debates that he cared a lot about, the kind of Booker T. Washington versus WBB Dubois notions of uplift and racial education and relationships and things like segregation. You get like a lot. And you also get, I think, in engagement with, you know, stuff like a lot of black artists at that time really were concerned about, which is just the legacy of not only slavery but, you know, massive cultural texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which we talk about in terms of it being a book. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin really matters because became an innumerable number of stage plays that traveled the country like it was popular culture. That’s sort of why it was so impactful that it was much bigger than the novel. It bled into styles of performance stereotypes that black actors would play like, bled into minstrelsy, see it, but into a lot of the things that Oscar Micheaux would eventually, with his own film company and working with actors like Evelin Prayer and and others, just try to dismantle a bit of film that we didn’t watch for this. But that is also on criterion that I would recommend for people. And I believe is currently streaming for free body and soul. It is interesting because it stars Paul Robeson. And who at that point was mostly known for roles like Emperor Jones, like roles about black people by white artists. And here goes Oscar Micheaux, making a film in which Paul Robeson apparently doesn’t realize this in the moment. And this is why he later sort of deny even being in the movie, even though it’s obviously him taking, you know, the ideas that you’d get from early Paul Robeson roles in white art and using them against themselves and really questioning the premises of black representation to that point. So he’s very much someone who is straddling all of these fences and also being a novelist. And also, you know, as he was a filmmaker progressing into the sound era, it’s like a long, interesting career. I think longer than you would expect for a black filmmaker of this period. And of course, we have to just face up to the fact that a lot of people don’t know even that black filmmakers were making films in the silent era. It’s not just Oscar Micheaux. And again, if you explore a bit on Criterion, you can see, you know, an early black western. Black mysteries like you get a fuller sense of spectrum. Micheaux was a particularly, I think, political filmmaker. And I think it was in an inherently political act to be a black filmmaker making a film at this point in the first place and to be a black actor stepping away from the minstrel stage, et cetera, to be in these films. But I think even in that context, me stood out and was sometimes I’m popular for that working class background. And that was his kind of education. And that is where you get a lot of the stuff in his films and the concerns between work and education and uplift, skin color and the trope of the tragic and lotter, which is something that this movie in particular really troubles. You know, you get all of it. You get sort of a real sense of black discourse at that time. But also they’re entertaining. You know, they’re movies, they’re the trash art. They’re TV trash art until TV comes. Is how a lot of artistically inclined people of the moment seems to feel. So, yeah, it just I would recommend people look into him and learn more about him and much more of his stuff, because there’s a lot there.
S4: Yeah. I mean, what keeps striking me over and over watching this is how sophisticated the thinking about race is in this movie compared to where white mainstream cinema was at even decades later. I mean, if you just think about, you know, the moment maybe in the 50s or so when race started to be a question once in a while, occasionally in the odd Hollywood film like Pinky, the Elia Kazan movie or something like that. I mean, when you boil it down, the thinking about race in those movies boils down to something like racism exists, right? I mean, that’s the big revelation in the movie, whereas a film like this has so many prisms on that question and in some parts is not even about that. Right. Is about individual relationships between the characters, about romantic intrigues, about, you know, conflicts within the black world, like the first 20 minutes of the movie or so. It takes place in an entirely African-American society. And it isn’t until midway through the movie that they start to be white characters that enter and interact with the black characters, which is completely, you know, basically backwards from how it would have been handled by Hollywood even well into the 20th century.
S3: You know, he does that thing that we recently, for example, gave get out a lot of credit for, deservingly to an extent, but a lot of credit for what it did with the horror movie, which is the basic sort of switcheroo of what if we assume that the audience of this movie is black? Like, what if we make a movie that is about black internalized fears of white people rather than about the more socially conditioned white internal fears of black people? Like what if your texts, your film, your piece of art imagines social conditions from a different perspective? You do wind up with a different movie like it’s a strange thing that happens. But this is sort of what Oscar Micheaux is doing with things like the melodrama. Like you take melodramas like birth of a nation and the fear of blackness, the fear of what they were calling of the time, miscegenation and race mixing. And, you know, the stereotypes and the tropes that D.W. Griffith so deftly and convincingly for some people wielded in that film. What if you take those things and say, well, what if we make the film from the perspective of people who are terrified of white people? How do you reimagine the melodrama of the mixed race light skinned black person with white lineage because of slavery and make their fears and their concerns the center of the movie? And look at whiteness from that prospect. Deb, and look at blackness, even from that perspective in language, when you describe it, it’s a small thing, but that’s a big thing to reimagine the world from a black perspective in a movie, it inflects how you dramatize things. And we’re definitely gonna have to get into this movie’s emphasis on narrative and counter narrative. What really happened versus what another person says happened versus what the press says happened? Like all that sort of conflicting competing discourse is to exactly that point, that these are competing perspectives about the same thing, which is the basic problem of race. And he folds all that into this movie that is, you know, an hour and fifteen minutes long and has multiple plots, crosscutting between each other and access characters that are there to make kind of moral and political points, but who aren’t there really to drive the narrative. It’s a lot going on.
S4: OK, so before we get to the story proper, there was one thing I wanted to add to your great summary of Oscar Micheaux and where this fit into his career, which is just that he was his own producer. He had his own production company, which set him apart from most of the people making, quote, race films. The time. Right. Race film being. I mean, it was almost a commercial category. You know, that basically meant that the films would be seen in either segregated cinemas or they’d be seen at segregated screenings at regular movie theaters. Right. So there would be something like a screening of a white film at 8:00 p.m. And then, of course, the black people would have to go at a more inconvenient time at 10 p.m. or whatever to go and see their movie. That was the commercial world that this would have been screened in. And that’s something else that struck me really tragically upon watching it is just how few white people at the time, including white filmmakers, would have been aware that this movie existed and been able to be influenced by it, you know, or to be in conversation with it.
S3: Yeah, absolutely. I think an important footnote to this film, not a footnote really, is that when it premiered in Chicago, as I understand it, censors forced the removal of quite a bit of it because, again, this Chicago race riots of 1919 had happened. There was a real fear of stoking among black audiences, in particular, renewed anger about things that it is very fair to be angry about, like lynching and racial supremacy and lack of economic opportunity. Phil, all things that this film puts its finger on, and I think it’s worth just noting historically that even the presence of such a large black community in Chicago and in the north broadly, which is something that this film gets at. You know, we’re talking about the aftermath of the first wave of the great migration of blacks from the south to the north after slavery. And so this is how you get like just, you know, in New York, in D.C. and Chicago and Los Angeles, these thriving black communities that are still there today are largely the result of these early, early migrations away from lynching and extreme violence in the south toward another kind of violence in the north. Like, I think a lot of black art would tell you that people got to the north end, things were better, but not necessarily different in terms of racism. But just the idea that the audience that would have been made angry by this, the censors thought, was an audience for whom the violence of lynching and interracial sexual assault in these things was a very fresh, not remotely abstract thing, that it was part of the reason that black people were even fleeing to places like Chicago. It’s part of the reason why we even have anything like an Harlem Renaissance is because of black flight from the south. And that’s a really big part of it. I think the context of this film and what’s interesting about it, immediately posing north versus south and having a certain attitude about the different opportunities there, a reality about the opportunities there are there are people in the north who are not very smart about this either. But that’s all, you know, kind of context for this. And yeah, the censorship board was worried that there would be further riots. This is a thing that has been said about black films many times since, including do the right thing. And when you put it in that context, it’s really such a damning thing for white cultural establishment and white critics to say about black are not you know, people have every reason to be angry. But we’re worried about how angry this is gonna make people.
S2: Right. That it tells a truth that can’t be known or seen. Society can only continue to function if we pretend this is not true. Yeah, and you’re right that that continues to be a question with movies that tell too much truth up until the present day. And in the very last bit of background I will give on the movie itself is just the movie as artifact, which is always something that. Fascinates me so much about silent films because so many of them have not survived. I mean, I always am saying the statistic because I can’t get over it, but something like 75 percent to 80 percent of silent movies that were made have not survived because they were not valued at the time. Even successful movies were sort of considered, as you said, disposable trash. And the celluloid was more valuable if melted down and used to make more celluloid to make more movies. Obviously, a movie like this that was not valued even by mainstream culture at the time is even less likely to survive. And for decades, this movie, like most silent movies, was presumed to have been lost. So one print, one nitrate print nitrate being that, you know, very flammable material that movies used to be printed on before more modern film stock was invented. One nitrate print was found in Spain with Spanish subtitles and the within our gates that we have now is all restored from that one print. So we don’t know what the original titles were.
S4: There’s one segment missing which is acknowledged in the Criterion restoration of it, the version of it that you can find now. But it is a pretty impressive restoration. I mean, it it looks pretty good for being a 100 year old movie that was lost for decades.
S3: It does. Yeah. And I mean, it is a funny note that we do get about how the intro titles here are retranslated back into English from Spanish. What I didn’t know is that only Micheaux’s Paul Robeson film Body and Soul has the original enter titles. I didn’t realize the extent to which the remnants of his films were so dispersed that they were translated into other languages to such an extent that we don’t actually have for any of them, but one the original enter titles. Which doesn’t affect my perception of the movie. But you’re right. Like silent films are such interesting problem texts for that reason that you don’t have these easy reproductions of the quote unquote original. You have these sort of re makes these like their piece back together. We’re still finding pieces of silent films and finding out where they fit in the scheme of things, which is what makes it such an interesting territory, but a very frustrating one. If you’re someone who is used to the classical Hollywood Polish, the complete film, the, you know, the perfect text. But I think silent films are so much richer in a way because of all these gaps and these things that we don’t know and these things we haven’t seen and we can’t see. We can only read about them in the press from the time. That just makes it more tantalizing.
S2: Yeah. Absolutely. In the moments in this film, there’s moments where the stock is kind of damaged right in that scene where they’re playing cards. There’s some moments where it’s really dark and you can’t quite see what’s going on. And to me, those traces, you know, those things that make it a physical artifact that was just lost. And if you’re an actual object that had to be found in some archive or in somebodies attic, make it seem so much more precious.
S3: Yeah. And just make you feel luckier. I don’t know, to even be able to watch it. It’s really a remarkable thing. I feel like this cannot be overstated. Not only that, black filmmakers were making films in the 1920s, which really should clarify for people the extent to which there’s any excuse about anyone not being able to make movies today, but also just that we have enough of those films to be able to see formerly, but also topically and thematically what black filmmakers were going for at the time. And you see that for them it was an immediately political art form that that Oscar Me show was going out of his way dangerously, I think, according to censors, to depict these things that just can’t be overstated. You know, it’s one thing to have the boys writing about it. It’s one thing to have like a Harlem Renaissance and these other movements that are contemporary. But film is a really, you know, images and narratives driven by images and take their own place in the consciousness and to see in this film a reenactment of a lynching, for example. I’m not going to excuse what the censors said about it, maybe causing riots, but I understand why they thought it was such a powerful thing. You know, it’s a powerful thing to see the stuff in this film. So it’s great that we recovered the Spanish version La Negra and and tidied it up and that we can watch it. It’s really kind of a miracle. I just feel like we’ve got to say that these early traces of films by people who weren’t white man by black people and women. It’s really important that we remember that it didn’t just exist, that in their own spaces they really thrived, frankly.
S4: All right. So let’s get into the story that within our gates tells. We had a listener write us an e-mail a couple weeks ago, and she made a very good point, that sometimes, depending what movie we’re talking about, we provide more of a plot summary, i.e., we basically do a podcast for someone who might not ever see the movie. And other times we proceed from the assumption that the listener has seen the movie and just, you know, start getting into our ideas and rolling with that immediately. And that’s a really hard balance to strike, especially with movies like this that are so episodic and have so. Many characters to introduce that we would be spending the entire time just introducing new characters who are only on screen for a few minutes.
S2: But we are going to try to start off with a summary for those of you who don’t intend to see the movie. But that said, I really think you get so much more out of this podcast if you do see the movie. So I hope most listeners are, you know, taking the two weeks of advance warning to watch the movie before they listen.
S3: At least in this case, it’s only like an hour and fifteen minutes. If you can watch some of it. I mean, Brader Summer Day was a different story. It’s four hours. We get it. But this is different.
S2: And this movie is just so worth it in itself. It would be such a shame to listen to our conversation rather than seeing the movie, because I don’t think that our conversation is going to be quite at the level of achievement that it’s so lovingly give for sure. So within our Gates tells the story of this black southern schoolteacher. At least she lives in the south at the beginning, named Sylvia Landry. She’s played by the wonderful actress Evelyn Pryor, who will talk about more. And it’s the story essentially of her attempt to get funding for this southern school for poor black kids that she teaches at. By making these repeated trips up north and looking for funds. When we first meet her, she is up in the north visiting her cousin, Alma. We’ll also talk about the duplicitous Alma. But as the movie goes on, she sort of shuttles back and forth. And that’s interesting in terms of this Great Migration theme that you were talking about. Right. Is that she keeps on re migrating throughout the movie, going back and forth and trying to either through white philanthropy to get enough money to keep the school going. But as that happens, there are also several romantic intrigues that at least one important nested flashback. And we learn more and more about Sylvia’s past and about what has brought her to the place that she is.
S3: Yeah. This is a melodrama. The sense of the plot that you gave is the plot. And then, of course, as you’re watching it pretty much immediately, you know, there are betrayals, there are premonitions, there are characters who are kind of just metastasize, political ideas that Michelle wants to get out. There’s like a lot of tangents, there’s flashbacks, those flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s like the most straightforward description is both entirely accurate to what the movie is about. But it is really complex. There’s no way to really quickly summarize all the tangents that we get. And again, it’s fairly short film.
S4: Yeah, there’s moments where you spend 10 fifteen minutes with a character and then that person never returns again. And so you could say that that makes it sort of choppy. But to me, it made it just so it conceptually it. And Jess. All right. Let’s start off with the Evelin Prieur character. And I think it’s worth mentioning that Evelin career was a big favorite of Oscar Micheaux and he helped to launch her career. She’s so fantastic in this movie. Don’t you agree? I mean, she’s there’s something so modern about her performance.
S3: Absolutely. Oh, I mean, she does one of my favorite silent film gestures, particularly for the heroines, the kind of the heaving breasts. I think her just overwhelmed with emotion being that in a silent assignment. You don’t need an intertidal to tell you that the woman is feeling some deep panic, fear, sense of tragedy, something because it is all melodrama ties. And she is pretty fantastic at just communicating some really real stuff. She’s so like elastic and interesting.
S2: I mean, she was really known for her versatility, which is something Oscar Micheaux used a lot, too. I think she did comedies. She separate from Oscar Micheaux, did musicals. She was in a Broadway musical. She sang with Epel Waters. She sang with Duke Ellington. I didn’t know that she had this whole side. I mean, because she does, as you say, play something of a tragic mulatto in this, although her character also has moments of joy and romance and a sense of humor. But I like how she. Good for. Yeah. Quite. Quite. In fact, she’s turning down a guy every other season.
S4: But she lived a tragically short time, which I also didn’t know until just researching this podcast today. But she died of complications of childbirth. She had her first child that year and not immediately. She lived about six months after that. But she died at only the age of 36 when she was, you know, still very successful. I mean, successful within this world of race films for the most part, although she also did appear on Broadway thing, etc., but very well-known and popular within that world. So it’s just really, really sad that she didn’t get more of a chance to go on acting and singing.
S3: And yet she’s from Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is part of where this film is set. And yeah, you know, she had a tragically short career, but her her last film performance, I believe, was as a sex worker in Joseph on Sternberg’s blonde Venus alongside Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. So, yes, stage and screen and singing. She sort of did it all. She’s really a career that I think more of us need to look into. Of course, it’s hard to see a lot of her films, but she was in a lot of Michaux. And I think that’s where you get to see a bit of it.
S4: And just to give a sense of the versatility of Evelin career and because it’s just fun to hear her. Boys, after watching her in a silent movie, let’s listen to a clip of Evelin Prieur singing. This is her six years after this movie was made in 1926, singing a song called It Takes a Good Woman to Keep a Good Man at Home.
S5: And you know when. Ariel, I want you to know that no, not on our radio. Keep an eye on that.
S4: So as within our Gates opens, we meet Sylvia Landry, the main character played by Evelyn Prieur, visiting her cousin, Alma. And I think Alma is the first character we need to get to know one of the important recurring characters, even though she’s only in a few scenes. You want to talk about Alma?
S3: Well, I think, first of all, it’s just worth mentioning that the actress who plays R Floyd Clements was a, you know, college educated and not someone who who’s historically been important for her roles on screen, although she was in this. You played in another Michaux film called The Broo, I believe. But she would eventually, in the late 50s, become the first black woman elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. I feel like this is something that’s true of every silent film, like when you look into people. They have these kind of fast lives and also these vast film lives that we just don’t know as much about as we could because he lacks so many silent films. But she’s also apparently I didn’t know this about her. She’s she’s apparently a big deal beyond the role of movies. But Alma is notable for being the first in a series of what is the word I would use betrayers, you know, complicated figures, but also redemptive figures, which I think we’re going to have to keep in mind as we talk about this. Things like redemption and premonition and spiritual stuff. She’s one of the first characters to do something bad, which is be in love with the same guy that her cousin Sophia is intended to marry and start plotting against her. Just immediate bad intentions, immediate melodrama.
S2: Right. And that’s the romance that as the movie kicks off, we think is going to be the central romance of the story when in fact, it turns out to be almost a throwaway by the first 10 minutes of the movie Conrade out of the picture. But Conrad is this guy who’s up in Canada. I mean, there’s really a lot of detail here. Like he’s up in Canada. He’s writing a letter to Sylvia saying, I’m going to come down and we can finally marry. And that’s when an intertidal tells us and this is a great thing about silent movies. Right. There can be this moment where a voice intercedes from outside of the world of the movie to tell you a piece of information you need to know, which is that Alma is in love with Conrad, too. So then you get a sort of a sneaky close up of Alma starting to make her plot about the wedge that she wants to drive.
S3: Absolute Sylvia and Conrad and I would even just add the Conrad being in Canada feels like a signifier because so many, you know, fugitive slaves escape to Canada. So when I hear that, we don’t really find out, I think if he’s from Canada or what the story is. But him even being there is one of those things that I think would have meant something to an audience at the time, which is also just worth mentioning, because so much I think of the world that my show is working with here has become invisible to us to an extent. Like the things that he’s referring to are the things that he takes for granted that his audience would automatically understand. But this is one thing that I think would be on its audience’s mind, that to be black in Canada Post slavery marks you as the descendant of a certain tradition of escaping to Canada’s is at least where my mind goes. But it doesn’t matter because he’s hardly a character, right?
S2: Yeah, he’s off to Brazil. Speaking of other things that are illegible, why exactly he would be going to Brazil and he seems to be assigned there for his job or something like that, Gary. That’s what he says in his letter. But he’s only important to us, really, because of the intrigue between Alma and Sylvia that he creates. And speaking of things that don’t quite make sense, I don’t think either of us could quite figure out the setup that Alma does where she gets Sylvia to be caught in a compromising position with a white man. Who is that guy? How does she lure them into a room so that when Conrad comes to visit, he comes upon this scene that looks as if Sylvia is cheating on him with this white guy?
S3: That part I couldn’t figure out. But it seems clear, at least thinking about it, that really two things matter. And the first is that Conrad sends a letter saying, I’m on my way, honey. Like, be ready. We’re getting married. And Armah, because she wants Conrad doesn’t tell Sylvia about it. And instead, right when Conrad shows up, Sylvia is in a back room with a white man who, it should be said, is making advances on her. We get a glimpse of it and it feels like he’s making advances on her that she is rejecting. But no one else sees that. So what gets perceived is she’s with a white man in his back room and it’s completely broken. Conrad’s heart. But it doesn’t really help Amah any because he plays to Brazil. He’s not sticking around for Armah either.
S2: Right. He kind of proves that he wasn’t really worth it for either of them. Right. Because he essentially tries to kill Sylvia when he comes upon her with this white guy and has to be stopped by Alma. So, you know, Albert may have some evil in her soul, but she doesn’t actually want her cousin to be strangled to death by her boyfriend.
S3: And I mean, we’re going to speak to the plot at some point, but there are just a number of things that feel worth pointing out. You know, one of the things that we show is dealing with here. It can’t be escaped that so many of the black actors in this film have whiter skin. And lighter skin is a kind of immediate legacy of slavery, of race mixing. You know, many of the sexual traumas of slavery that resulted in a lot of black people to this day having lighter skin, but also that I think Sylvia, as a lighter skin tragic heroine, could fit into this tragic Milada landscape. But this movie, I think, complicates that and really fascinating ways. But this is one of the things that I think people watching it at the time would see. They would see a kind of potentially tragic mulatto character that by that point, I know black authors and artists were very tired of. And I think that Oscar show is one of the people who is tired of that. And also that, you know, trope, that idea is something that birth of a nation and similar films. You know, they’re part of the reason that they became such dangerous and bad tropes and the things that they say about sexual threat and the threat that the existence of the mulatto, you know, poses for the sexuality of black man and all these things like he strangles her, I think part of out of a deep seated racial anxiety that is trying to get at. But he also just runs off. So screw him, you know.
S2: All right. He’s out of the picture. He’s one of many characters that will just do his duty in terms of plot contrivance and then leave. Yeah, but there’s a part of me that loves that because this movie does it so female centric from the very beginning. And I think that’s one of the ways that it complicates the trope of the tragic mulatto and also just in general of the woman as sort of an object of marriage ability or sexuality is just that from the very beginning. Sylvia is a subject, right? I mean, she’s a person who has a job. The first thing we learn about her is that she’s a schoolteacher, not that she’s in love with Conrad and much of the rest of the movie. I mean, talk about passing that BEXELL test or whatever. Much of the rest of the movie is about how is she going to fund a school. Right. It’s not all about guys. And how is she going to land a guy? And she does end up landing one.
S3: Yeah. And it feels like, you know, trying to fund the school, etc.. I mean, at times comes up as contrary even to men and male advances. And in fact, one of the things that happens later is that’s kind of used against her. But yeah, the way it immediately marks her very knowingly as an educated black woman from the South is, I think. Yeah. Again, one of those things that is loaded, that’s a loaded thing to be a literate, educated black person in the 1920s. Post slavery. And we see that because when she does go down south and she answers this ad to go work for the Piney Woods school, we immediately see that the school people and the sort of poor blacks who sharecroppers who are looking for education that like education and literacy, are things that are seen as instrumental to any kind of social progress. So the fact that we start with an educated black woman is meaningful.
S2: Right. And that becomes very explicit in the flashback at the end, which we’ll get to, which shows, among other things, her process of becoming educated and how that, you know, alarms and disturbs the racial narrative in the place that she grew up. Yeah. But that’s the flashback that we have to save until the end, because that’s when things get really crazy. Narrative wise. Yeah. So just to return to the next chapter, after Sylvia goes back to the south and as you say, starts working at the Piney Woods School. This financial problem presents itself at the school because Reverend Jacobs, the guy who runs the school with his sister, is too generous in letting people in. And we see this black sharecropper or someone who, you know, a very poor black man bring his two children in and say, you know, essentially what you just said. You know, my kids say that they can’t get anywhere without an education. I really want to educate them here. And it’s implied that this happens over and over again and that the Reverend Jacobs has made his school go near bankrupt because of his generosity in accepting all of these poor kids. Yeah. So it now falls on Sylvia to go back up north again and try to raise money for the school.
S3: Yeah. Meanwhile, there’s this other thread, a guy named Larry Wright who is worth mentioning because I mean, earlier you mentioned, you know, one of the techniques that Michaux really loves and uses really well and I think uses this movie to generate so much of the narrative action, but also so many of the ideas to these contrasts is this crosscutting, because, you know, as some of this is happening, we’re also cutting to this character, Larry, who’s the stepbrother of armor, but who really is professional crook and someone who’s in and out of a kind of virtuous life, but largely is not leading a virtuous life.
S2: I feel like he’s mainly there at the beginning to kind of establish that. Alma runs with shady types or something. You know that she’s not trustworthy and to kind of establish these two. I mean, it’s kind of Booker T. Washington, you know, that comes in here in the sense that, yeah, Silvio’s about uplift and, you know, joining the middle class and sort of being a respectable person, whereas Alma seems like she’s more tied in with this shadier world of people who kind of get by on the streets, you know.
S3: Yeah, I think the crosscutting part of what it does is you’re switching between and this is implementors, I think, in Cylvia vs. Armah, but you’re switching between these two varieties of black life. You have the uplifting narrative, the buyer bootstraps using things like education and social programs to improve the lives of black people. Very kind of Booker T. ideals. But then you also have what feels like the result of the opposite. You have someone like Larry who is another form of black life, which only dwells in kind of criminality and getting by. And as the stepbrother of Amah, I think we’re to understand that that’s part of her vibe, too. Even though, you know, I mean. Well, I was going I was gonna make an excuse for her. I was gonna say she you know, Larry literally kills a guy during a game of poker and Ahmed doesn’t kill anyone, but she does almost get Sylvia killed. Not intentionally, but she doesn’t sort of land Sylvia in that compromising position that one can’t not know is going to be a sensitive point. You know, Sylvia, in a backroom with a white man as her intended shows up, is pretty dark thing actually to set her cousin up for.
S2: I got to say, yeah, there’s this seedy world, that sort of setup. It never explained. And maybe, you know, at the time, it wouldn’t have needed to be explained. But we sort of understand that Alman, Larry, inhabit a different moral universe than Sylvia does. Something, though, that’s worth mentioning is that everybody you meet at the beginning, I mean, except for the poor Sheriff Copper who comes to try to get his kids educated, is moving in a pretty Middle-Class World. Like Gore has a nice house. She has nice clothes. You know, there’s not really a sense that anybody is living in poverty. They’re not wealthy, but everyone seems to be fairly educated and comfortable up in the north.
S3: Yeah, there is this real disparity that we show builds even just the inner titles that we get where he says, like, the North has violence, but it’s not like Southern violence versus the south, which as we delve deeper into the film and particularly toward the end when we get Silvius backstory is depicted, is a deeply violent and backwards place. And all of this is happening in the context of things like the question of the black vote becoming legal. Like there’s a real broader political context in which these questions of education and class status and other things have real material heft, that we’re on the cusp of a different kind of life for black people. And that what we’re seeing when we see the Larrys of the world versus the Silvio’s of the world is part of what people like Booker T.. Washington wanted to fix and clarify and improve. You know, he wanted more Silvius. He wanted fewer, Larry.
S2: Right. And as we’ll see, Larry ends up getting punished for his ways. Right. And Larry does not does not end well. And really, though, he doesn’t serve much of a purpose in the story other than to establish that that seedy underworld exists.
S3: Yeah, like a thematic look. Like a lot of people on this film. And we should maybe get to some of them. But I think this is where sort of claims about activism come in. I’ve seen that critique of this and other silent films, other race movies for sure, are guilty of didacticism. But I think what Micheaux does that’s so interesting is that there’s an idea, I think, behind Larry Justice. There’s an idea behind the characters of old Nat. And later, Ephrem, these characters who play roles that aren’t character driven roles really have their ideas in action. There are people who play a role that gives heft to the ideas that Micheaux’s trying to bring to screen.
S2: I’m glad you mentioned old Ned, because I really want to talk about a little chapter of the movie, which is so strange. Is it the dead center of the movie? It touches on nothing else except for anecdotally. I mean, he he doesn’t meet any of the characters in the movie. And the way that is introduced, I think, is narratively quite sophisticated because it’s nested into that conversation between the white ladies. Right. So let’s talk about this whole middle chapter and I’ll just quickly set it up. Sylvia has gone back up to the north to try to raise money for the school. There’s this moment that her purse gets stolen right by this kind of young thug in the street. And that seems to happen mainly so that Dr. Vivian, the new character, has just been introduced, can chase after the thief get the purse back and become friends with Sylvia. So Dr. Vivian is the next of the suitors. Understandably, everyone who meets Evelyn Prieur falls in love with her. And he also falls for Sylvia. He is another of the uplift characters that you. Chondrite, an educated guy who is sitting around perusing these kind of theological texts in his office when he’s not chatting up Sylvia and charming her. And I have to just mention in briefly that there’s these really charming kind of little fantasy scenarios, right, where we get a I think it’s a dissolve and the dissolve is, you know, each of them separately imagining romancing the other. Yeah. She’s this very sort of sweet use of this fantasy space that, again, I mean, I just feel like Oscar Micheaux so experimental in that way. I mean, for 1920 and for being only a second time filmmaker, completely self educated filmmaker, it’s really sophisticated to use dissolves for that specific reason. But after getting her purse back and after beginning her flirtation with Dr. Vivienne, Sylvia is walking down the street and talk about melodrama. There’s so many great little plot contrivances that just happens so that a new character got to be introduced. But she sees a little white kid, right? Yeah. I mean, I just I love the freedom with just, hey, we need this person to come in.
S3: So let’s create something in the story to get her car in there and have it hit her.
S2: So being the good woman that she is, she tries to save this child and does save this child. Right. Moves a little kid out of the way of this car that they’re about to be hit by. We never see the kid again. Kid just runs off into a field or something. But Sylvia gets hit by the car. But luckily enough, the woman driving the car or having it driven for her is this wealthy, older white lady, Mrs. Warlick, who ends up befriending Sylvia. And in this really, I thought, very sweet scene. Sylvia wakes up in the hospital and there is Mrs. Warlick kind of tending to her and and seeing if she’s all right. In the course of that conversation, the school is mentioned and we get this little sidebar in the middle of the movie. It has to do with Mrs. Warlick and her struggle with whether or not she’s going to give money and how much money she’s going to give to the Piney Woods school. And I’m getting too old, Ned, because old Ned, his little one story is nested in the middle of this conversation as we were sitting before taping. This is sort of the moment of the Karen. Right. Mrs. Stratton is what we would now call the carrot of the story, the racist white lady from the south who is a friend of Mrs. War. So do you want to talk about their conversation in the very proper parlor of Mrs. War?
S3: Yet it is now that I’m remembering our introduction to Mrs. Stratton is sort of random. And earlier, we just get a glimpse of, you know, a white southern woman that we learn through an intertidal is opposed to even women suffrage because of what, you know, expanding voting rights would mean for black voting rights. So when we see her with Mrs. War, which we already know who she is and where she stands, and her advice is, you know, the blacks can’t be saved. Don’t bother educating them. We don’t want things like the black vote. We don’t want things like kind of black political representation or black education, which is, you know, a really interesting counterpoint to the points being made by the head of the Piney Woods school, whose feeling is and I think even takes it, the press to say as much. You know, we want more funding from the federal government. The government isn’t paying enough per head for schoolchildren. We have no kinds of other resources. So there is this link between, you know, if you had the black vote, you’d probably have political representation that would be more in favor of funding things like schools. But then in the north, you have this southern woman saying, we don’t want that. I think Michelle maps out the ways that it’s very systemic and interlinked. So when we have this conversation between these two white women, it’s a conversation between two political stances. These are two women who share a class but who have very opposite politics. But in the midst of Straten talking about her reasoning, she says, Why don’t you give money to old Ned? This guy who has this church, who agrees with me as we learn when we get to the church and we see him. Sermonize agrees that politics, education, these are no place for black people. And this is a black man saying this again, even the idea that there’d be such a wide variety of ideas about this amongst not only white people and not only these two white women, but amongst black people is kind of a radical thing to show. I think onscreen that there are these contrasts and these pivots ideologically between even how black people of the moment we’re feeling. Of course, in the way that new show characterizes old and characterizes certain black people who are not with this vision. It is pretty clear what he thinks of the blacks who are not with this, you know, education uplift idea.
S2: One thing that occurred to me when you were talking about the voting question and that that moment that we see Mrs. Stratton reading the newspaper and shaking her head disapprovingly right. As she reads about women getting the vote, is that this is 1920, the year that women got the vote. So, yeah, that would have been an incredibly live question for our audiences in the theater. Right. Black audiences and white audiences, the. What does it mean that women now have the vote and women now have the power to do things like talk about how we should allocate our resources as a country? Yeah, but yeah, the placement of this old NED moment, I kept re watching it to figure out how does it fit into the story. And essentially, it’s almost similar to these fantasy moments I was talking about where there’s suddenly a dissolve and we see, you know, Dr. Vivian thinking about his future wedding to Sylvia. There’s just this great freedom in moving from a fantasy space to real space. And it’s almost as if this old Ned little vignette that happens in the middle of the conversation is a story that Mrs. Stratton is telling to Mrs. Wallwork or something. Right. Because at the end of the old Nedd moment, we just go back to the parlor with the two white ladies talking. And so we don’t quite know in what space the vision of his church occurs. But at any rate, what we learn from this little moment of seeing first old Ned preaching in his church, and then there’s this kind of comical moment where somebody’s stolen from the collection plate. Right. And he asks who it is and a whole bunch of people get up and start putting money back on the plate. And so there’s a little bit of parody of the church and church going. But the real critique of religion comes in the next moment that we see old Ned not in a church full of black people, but going to visit these two white guys. So nested within the scene of the white philanthropist asking how much money she should give to the white racist. We get this other scene of a black person going for money to these more wealthy white people. And there’s a, as you say, a completely different relationship in place of Sylvia’s more equitable relationship with Mrs. Wallwork. Right where her request is given sort of fair time and consideration. There’s this sense that old Ned has to suck up to these white guys. He essentially has to play the part of this kind of, you know, shuffling subordinate preacher who isn’t going to ask for too much. And he loves white folks, as he says in the intertidal, in order to get the money that he needs. And so he has this interaction with him. It’s really strange. He’s got this incredible passive aggressive line. Like, I kept rewinding to make sure that was really what he says. But he says a couple times to the white guys as he’s asking them for money for his church. Oh, well, we’re all going to heaven. You’re all going to go to hell. All right. It’s almost like he’s saying to them, our reward is going to be in the afterlife. You’re having a good life now and I have to ask you for money and beg. But, you know, we’re gonna be the ones in the afterlife who are recognized and the white guys are fine with it, like they’re laughing. And I think even clapping, they give him some of the money that he asks for. And then there’s that really, really sad moment. That’s almost a direct address to the camera. Not quite. It’s more like a Shakespearean aside or something. But old Ned leaves their office and it’s standing there with just us and the camera. And he sort of looks off to the side and and basically kind of excoriates himself and say, you know, I’m the one who’s gonna end up in hell. But, you know, this is the way that that I have to do things.
S3: Michaux is so this is part of what I think is so essential about his work and just really canny about it is that even the irony of him preaching about why blacks shouldn’t be educated, why they shouldn’t try to enter the world of wealth, I think is even something that he outright names is a thing that is for white people as people are stealing from the collection plate, perhaps because they don’t have money to give, but rather need money. There’s like this irony there, right? Like you’re promoting this ideology that is creating the circumstances under which people are stealing money from the church. And you’re doing it on behalf of these white men that are kind of going along with the things you’re saying, but still kick you in the ass for fine and demean you even as you think you’re talking to equals. I think for me, you know, old Ned, his character becomes, I think, more clear and his purpose becomes more clear later on when we get a character named Ephrem, who is kind of a similar similar relationship to white people, a sense of I’m safe so long as I collaborate with white people against the needs of my people, fellow black people. But you’re right, it is this moment, particularly at the end of the old Nedd passage, before we get back to the two white women talking of just like this black consciousness, speaking the consciousness of the sellout and the spiritual damage that it does to him is a really powerful idea. And it echoes later in the film. But it also just, I think, sticks with you. As you know, this is kind of the consequence of not being with the program that Micheaux’s film clearly is aligned with the Cylvia program. This is sort of what you get. And all of that is nested in this conversation over. Are we going to help find this black school like it’s doing something intellectually, I think, rather than plot wise, which is. Man, that’s like a higher level. Right. Like, we’re beyond things like plot. We’re centrally in this realm of ideas and consciousness at this point for all the ways that this movie feels really straight, straightforward. This is for me when it starts to have this eerie complexity about the ideas that it’s presented. So. Far like when we get to Old Net, I’m thinking, OK, wow, this is doing something with these ideas about blackness and black relationship to upward mobility that speak very loudly, I think. And we would have spoken very loudly to the audience at that time. And Assistant, it couldn’t be more clear that this character is a kind of caricature of a bad kind of black ideology as far as this movie is concerned.
S2: Right. As Ephrem is later on, except that for old Ned, it’s more painful because he’s aware of it. Right. He’s very conscious of his split.
S3: Right. Well, we’ll get to that from Ephram.
S2: The last thing I wanted to say about the conversation between the two white ladies is that in whatever fantasy realm the old NED vignette takes place. It’s almost as if Mrs. Warwick knows about it, because when we revisit the white ladies again, she has decided to donate not 5000, but fifty thousand dollars, which was one of the fist pumping moments in this movie for me. Especially coming out of the moment that we ourselves are living through right now, right when there’s this, I don’t know, kind of a white crisis of conscience going on about our hundreds of years of obliviousness, whether it’s because of the NED anecdote that maybe Mrs. Stratton has been telling her, I don’t know exactly, or maybe she’s just offended by the racism of her friend who decides to increase her donation by 10 times and make it not 5000, but fifty thousand dollars to the school. Yeah, but interestingly, I mean, that would you know, in a lesser movie that was just sort of about white philanthropy and a white savior, that would be the end of the movie. And we would see I’ll be going back to the south with her fifty thousand dollars and saving the school. But instead, we still have a lot of plott left to go.
S3: Yeah. And I just want to say quickly, because I think this movie is full of exactly the kind of thing you describe the in a lesser movie, X, Y, Z choice would have been made. One thing I’d forgotten about, but I think is related to Aldan. That is also just earlier on when Cylvia is mugged on the street and her purse is stolen. A really interesting thing happens with the purse stealer after he’s taken from the car. I don’t know if you remember Belle Yassa becomes the meat cute for Sylvia and Dr. Vivianne, but there’s crosscutting there to the fief is seen being led away by the cops and we don’t see where he’s led to, but we keep getting flashes of that. It’s you know, Michaux has not forgotten. I think about the fate of that person. Either he doesn’t let that just happen because, again, an audience at the time would probably be a little concerned for any kind of black person on the street taken up by the cops and really wouldn’t want to take for granted that the fate of that person is something that we should celebrate either. It’s actually pretty tragic, even though it doesn’t go to a tragic place. You know, before we get to old Nedd, we have this glimpse of this other man and police and what that’s going to mean for him and me. So doesn’t show us that. But he does later show us a kind of violence that can happen when white supremacy sort of steps into the screen and steps into the movie. Again, another movie might not have given us the crosscutting of those spates of the man being led away by the cops. And Dr. Vivianne and Sylvia talking right like that in itself is inventive that the structure of this movie is doing a lot.
S2: So, yes, there’s so much going on, Cam, that we still have a lot of plot to get through. But I really want to get to the flashback, because that’s really where all of these themes really pay off. And the movie really reaches a pretty incredible dramatic climax with that crosscutting. Yeah. So to get there, let’s just set up some of the quite a good deal of plot machinations that have to happen to get us there, including quite a few coincidences that are sort of like, oh, I got run over by a philanthropist. But I love the drama. Yeah. Yeah, I forgive it. All of it. So a whole bunch goes on after Sylvia goes back down south again. We didn’t even talk much about Reverend Jacobs, the guy running the school, but he also was in love with Sylvia. He proposes to her. She turns him down because she’s fallen in love with Dr. Vivian. But then, Larry, good old c.D. Larry, the card playing murderer comes down south, too, with some evil plans. And his evil plan is that he wants to essentially get the white lady’s money right. He wants to get all of this money that Sylvia has raised for the school from her. In order to do that, he tries to blackmail her. So this is what we learn, that she has something on her, even though we’ve seen her as this very upstanding woman, that she apparently has some secrets from her past, that she’s so afraid of being found out that she actually flees the school. She doesn’t want to give him the money and she doesn’t want her secret to be found out either. So they both head up north again. There’s really a lot of going back and forth. There’s like four great migrations. And this.
S4: Shows you want to take it from what happens after both Sylvia and Larry get back up north again.
S3: Well, essentially, Larry, he doesn’t get the money from Sylvia. So he tries to rob a bank and that obviously doesn’t go well. He gets shot in the altercation that ensues. And it just so happens that the doctor. Around to treat his wounds, his doctor, Vivian. And that is how Vivian and Armah have a little sit down in which AAMA, who has in the meantime sort of repented. I think, you know, part of the reason that she’s talking to Vivian and part of the reason that she’s about to explicate the past of Sylvia to him is out of remorse and regret and trying to make good on the fact that she, you know, tried to steal Sylvia’s man early in the movie and almost got Sylvia killed. So this is how we finally get to this sit down, because, I mean, it’s worth saying that, like, in a movie like this, we’re supposed to just sort of get to a point where the couple gets together, but she can’t quite get back to Dr. Vivian. The film tells us until we all understand the circumstances from which she comes. So it’s really the most, I think, notorious and famous and modern and just really wonderful part of the movie. This final chunk that, again, another movie I don’t think would have done in this way where we get this long passage about Sylvia and where she comes from in the south and how she was adopted into a family of sharecroppers that were lynched. And we’re told early on before we see any of it, that they were lynched. So it’s all the more tragic because we spent a lot of time. And in the moment before that.
S2: Yeah, this flashback is really extended. I mean, this is not, you know, a quick montage of images to show that she comes from this family that was lynched. It’s rather the introduction of a whole new set of characters. The parents that raised her, the adoptive parents, her little brother becomes a character. I don’t know her adoptive brother or if he’s her biological brother. But she and this little boy are both being raised by this poor black sharecropper family. I guess they’re established as sharecroppers, right? They’re sort of farmers. And we also meet Mr. Griddles Stone, who is the white landlord who owns the land that they farm. His servant, Ephrem, who we’ve already talked about, who is this very toadying? I mean, he really is like essentially he’s a sort of a Stepin Fetchit character, right? He is very graveling black man who’s sort of secretly drinks behind his master’s back, drinks his liquor and is a big gossip. That’s the big thing we learned about Ephrem, is that he loves to spread stories, which ends up being what gets the Landry family falsely accused of Griddle Stone’s murder. But before we get to the murder and the ensuing lynching and just really the incredibly sad conclusion to this flashback, I just wanted to mention that education again and this idea of uplift and, you know, becoming a respectable person and lifting yourself out of poverty is once again stressed at the beginning of the flashback. And we basically go back in time and see Sylvia’s education in progress. So when we first see her back in this flashback world, she is doing math on a sheet of paper while her parents, who we presume are innumerate and, you know, illiterate, are sitting around watching her. And she’s basically telling them, look, the white landlord griddles, Stone has been cheating you. And next time you go in to, you know, I guess bring him the proceeds of the farm, you need to show him this math and show that you understand that he’s been cheating you. So we start to see right there. I mean, it’s just I just feel like it’s so beautifully established there. The doubleness. Right. The danger of education for black people. Yeah. The whole movie has been about how important it is to get these black kids educated and how, you know, essentially how valuable Sylvia is because she’s this black woman who values education and is trying to get kids into school and fund the school. But we also see that, you know, in her own life, being educated has directly resulted in the death of her family.
S3: Yeah. And in fact, I mean, the document, that kind of receipt showing their earnings is in fact, the only real evidence that the lynch mob has against this family. It’s something that gets recast as a kind of uppity ness, as a kind of, you know, show of force against this landowner. If you don’t give us this money, X, Y, Z, which is really something that the film does, interestingly, by showing us what their intentions were, showing us what Sylvia’s instructions are, how Mr. Landry should present this information, knowing that it is a dangerous thing to do. How respectful they know they have to be when essentially contesting the books of a guy who, you know, when we meet him, gallstone is compared to Nero. He’s someone that poor whites have been screwed over by as well as blacks. And so right to your point, this question of education, of knowing the numbers, of taking account of what you’re owed, it just can’t be overstated. What a powerful but. Yeah, dangerous thing that is, you know, with slavery. Not that far in the distance, particularly at the point of this flashback moment. It’s such a dangerous thing to do. Made all the more so by Ephrem, who is a. We’re spying out the window and Mr. Landry comes and talks to Mr. Gretel’s stone, Mr. Gittel Stone is, of course, already contrary. But then there’s the other element that griddle stone has also screwed over poor whites. And so through another window is one of the poor whites. And he has a shotgun and he shoots into the room. He’s aiming at Gretel’s stone. But, of course, in the scuffle, Gretel Stone grabs a gun. Landry is trying to protect himself. What? Ephrem winds up telling everyone because he’s still spying. Is that Mr. Landry went and killed griddles. Stone. He killed the white landowner. And the receipt with the numbers is still on Gradle Stone’s desk. So it is this merging of so many things at once in this one scene, played as it happened, played, as Ephrem describes it, to people.
S2: That’s right. It gets replayed so that we see what Ephrem is lying to everyone and saying that he saw.
S3: Right. There’s a reason why, of all the things in this film, this flashback segment, first of all, the fact that it exists where it does and is as long as it is is of note, but also just the complexity of things that have happened. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the rest of it. But like so far, you have this class debate. You have this race debate. You have education, as you said. It’s all there. But, yeah, so the family winds up having to go on the run because now I fromm’s telling everyone in town that Mr. Landry killed not just a white man, but the white landowner and the lynch mob coming after them, et cetera, becomes part of the story.
S2: I mean, here is a moment where I feel like birth of a nation and other instances of crosscutting, you know, which was a fairly new technique really come into play because there’s this really sophisticated crosscutting between the white lynch mob chasing the family on the one hand and on the other hand, Sylvia, who’s gotten separated from the family. I think the inner titles say that she’s gone to stay with some people that are friendly with the family. At any rate, she’s not aware that this is all happening, the lynching. But at the same time, she’s undergoing her own racial trauma, which is that Griddles Stone’s brother sees her going into this cabin and decides that he’s going to go in and have his way with her. So, I mean, just as birth of a nation ends with this suspense about will the white woman be raped by the black man or not? This movie reverses it and has this older white man chasing Sylvia around the cabin. Yeah. And then things get really melodramatic because at the very moment and I really think this is one of the most extraordinary and painful shots in the whole movie that I see that being that kind of cross being with the ropes around it. Yeah. And we just see the ropes being cut. Right. So we don’t actually see the moment of the people being hung or the aftermath of it, even though that scene feels so graphic and it makes you understand why censors would be worried about the response to it. It’s a long scene. Yeah. I mean, you see a lot of details. The boy trying to escape on the horse, but you don’t actually see the moment of the parents being hung, rather, you just see these ropes being cut, you know, and that at the other end of the rope, the weight is falling and that’s the end of them. It’s really just brutal the way that that’s film.
S3: Yeah. You know, I mean, what’s wild is that, in fact, the only kind of hanging you really do see is before the lynch mob catches the family who’s hiding out pretty well. They’re waiting around and they’re getting a little bored. And the only black person who’s around is Ephrem, who thinks he’s oh, my God, the white people. Right. And so at some point they say, well, you know what? While we’re waiting, why don’t we grab Ephrem? And this is a guy who thinks that, you know, I mean, he’s having this whole inner monologue. Well, I’m really in with the white people. They love me because I’m I’m the one who told them about these other bad black people. So when they turn on him and they grab him again about me, shows you of fantasy and imagination here. What we get before they haul him off is f from imagining what’s about to happen, which is him strung up. But we don’t see them do that. We get his projection of the inevitable. And then like we eventually have the drawn out lynch mob confrontation with the Landry family. And yeah, as you point out, the son trying to run away, getting shot at and falling to the ground and pretending he’s dead. How does a great, like, heroic bit of relief that I think I have certainly really, man, cause seeing him get shot at was pretty wild, really, really horrible.
S2: And him getting away on the horse was another of those rare moments of kind of fist pumping trial. Yeah, absolutely. He made it right. I mean, there could be a sequel about him.
S3: But also, I just wanted to say that the scene with Sylvia in the cabin. You know, like both of these scenes of her attempted rape and of the lynching are so like summarizing of the violent experiences that black people had during and after slavery. But both of these scenes are really drawn out like Micheaux doesn’t just imply, even as he doesn’t show Mr. and Mrs. Landry getting strung up and as you say, like really effectively shows the ropes getting cut. And that sort of tells you everything you need. They’re already dead at that point. But even back in the cabin, the length of the scene in which Evelin career as Sylvia is being chased around by griddles Stone’s brother. It’s really painful. It feels. We land in this space and we stay in this space for so long that it just feels like this is what all of the machinations and all the plot whatevers like. This is kind of what Michaux wants us to see. He wants us to see the danger of education, as you pointed out, and the danger of any sort of attempt at lifting oneself up out of the poverty imposed by the post slavery moment and the poverty imposed by sharecropping. But also, you know, that sense of sexual threat really puts into context. I think the earlier moments in the movie when we see her in a back room with a white man. It makes impossible. The thing that Conrade, her first Suder, imagines was happening.
S2: This sort of lends credence to the idea that that would, of course, not be what’s happening, because this is someone, Sylvia, who’s been terrorized sexually, actually, and who is, in fact, as we also learned in that scene, is the product of exactly such a scene as they battle terror rapist the moment he finally tears her clothes off. He sees this scar on her chest that he recognizes. So he knows from that scar that she is his daughter, his mixed race daughter from an earlier affair that he had with a black woman. So she and he learn at the same time that he is her father. And I think, although there’s not an inner title that says it, you actually see his mouth moving, saying, my daughter, my daughter. So he actually cuts the rape short there. And I think the inner title even says he paid for her education. Right.
S3: He is the reason that she is educated. You know, again, it’s a melodrama. So there is an extent to which it’s like my daughter. It’s like ridiculous. But it’s like kind of a holy shit. The circularity of it, the way that, as you say, she is the product of such a scene as this one and that her entire legacy of education, which is how she’s tried to teach her parents to sort of keep better accounts, which winds up getting them killed. It’s like the way that just all these things wind up. Linking to each other in this flashback is just extraordinary. It’s really just wild.
S2: Did you notice also that the cabin he’s chasing around has a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the way? I saw that moment when he chases are up onto the table. Right. And he’s. Yeah, basically the moment right before he manages to get her dress off. You have Abe Lincoln staring down at them, which, you know, is just again. It’s like a SCRIMPY show is thinking big. He’s thinking in big historical terms. At this moment. Right. I mean, he’s establishing generations of sexual trauma and, you know, throwing the civil war in there. And I mean, it may be that it’s melodrama, but I find that scene and the whole last 20 minute flashback of the movie just incredibly affecting our role.
S3: It’s just incredible. And there’s just so much going on. And I’m completely with you. Me. So I feel didn’t always want to own this aspect of it, but I feel like it’s impossible not to think of birth of a nation and the kind of reversal that Michaux is offering here. And kind of like I said earlier, about get out, just like imagining a black audience who would see the sexual terror, this racial terror through the black experience. This is speaking to their fears and speaking to their ideas about, you know, education and uplift and all these other things.
S2: It’s this segment of this movie is famous for a reason, just makes me think that the title within our gates, which has never brought up directly, nobody uses that phrase in the course of the movie. But again, it’s just so tragic that this movie would mainly, almost exclusively have been seen by black audiences at the time. Yeah. Because what it really does in some ways is invite the white viewer in to say, you know, this is what it’s like where we are. Yeah. So once again, just as was the case with the old dead story. This was all something that somebody was talking about in a room. And we’re reminded of that. When we cut back to Alma and Dr. Vivian, she’s told him this terrible story about Sylvia’s origins and like the good man he is. That only makes Dr. Vivian want Sylvia more. So the very last scene that we get to, which I want you to talk about a bit, because it’s so strange. Is this kind of patriotic proposal that Dr. Vivian makes to Sylvia? We see them sitting and talking. He is asking her her hand in marriage, but he also throws in all this stuff about what black Americans have done and the battles they’ve fought in, all the things that she should be proud of. And I think it’s a moment when, you know, you definitely could argue that the didacticism of the movie is a bit over-the-top because Dr. Vivian, who hasn’t been a huge character so far, kind of gets the last word on what we should take away.
S3: Yeah, it’s strange. It’s like part of what he’s talking about is World War One and black integration into the making of this country, which, you know, I mean, I think slavery in itself can account for what black labor, black people have done to sort of make this country. But but that’s not the case he’s making. Yeah. I don’t know totally what to make of the ending. I mean, do you think it’s cynical? Do you think this is my show being cynical or do you think that we should take this at face value?
S2: I don’t know exactly. It didn’t occur to me that it was cynical at the time. I think it more struck me as just odd. I wasn’t quite sure why we were going on this this tour through history and why patriotism is such an important part of his proposal to her. And so I don’t know. I don’t think we have enough perspective on Dr. Vivian to know whether he’s supposed to be being satirized. But it seems to me like this is maybe the movie’s most intense moment of that Booker T. Washington style uplift that we talked about, right. Yeah. And this moment of him sort of saying, I mean, basically trying to find something positive in black history to say it isn’t all, you know, slavery and rape by white slave owners and misery and fear that you came from. There are also these good things that our people have brought to the country, and that seems like it’s just very much something of its time. I mean, as you say now, I think acknowledging all the legacy of suffering that went into black history would be a part of that moment. Yeah, even the fact that his romantic proposal has to be interlaced with any history at all. It’s an odd note to end the movie on.
S3: It is. But, you know, it does give us, ah, our marriage plot. We do end with the couple together. But I do think the reading that takes it at face value, it’s him saying in order to survive here, I think you have to believe in the goodness of the country. You have to believe that uplift is something that is possible and that America is a place that can enable it. That Sylvia can’t sort of live in this eternal fear that part of the prospect of living in the north is a greater access to American freedom. I think black art after this moment very much starts to complicate that. But for 1928, it feels very didactic. But I think that you see Sylvia have to will herself to believe this. I think I think for me, that might be the most important thing. It’s something that Sylvia has every reason to not buy into. It’s something that she has to choose when she chooses to marry this. And she has to choose to believe that she can love the country, that the country can be good, right?
S2: I think, again, that my hesitation about it comes from, you know, just the historical moment that we’re not in anymore. I mean, you know, in the Jim Crow era, as a black audience member watching this, you would have a completely different experience of that. You know, the idea that there would have to be kind of a utopian vision, even if it was this somewhat, you know, artificial or didactic one, in order to kind of forget and move on. Makes complete historical sense. Yeah. And the last thing that we see in the movie then is this dissolve to their wedding day, them standing by a window, looking out and her smile. You know, I think that it gives the movie back to her in a way, you know, that the very last thing we see is Sylvia finally having found some kind of happiness. I mean, the very, very first thing that we saw in the movie, right. With her pining for her lover to come down from Canada and that, like many other relationships in the movie, didn’t work out. So I don’t begrudge her her patriotic happy ending.
S3: No, she she deserves joy. I think she’s been through a lot. I’m glad you chose this.
S2: Oh, yeah. I mean, this movie just blew me away. I’m so, so glad that we revisited it. All right. So having done a very sweet and light and bouncy movie, The Lady, followed by this very heavy and in many ways dark movie within our gates, it is your turn again to pick for next time. So do you have any thoughts?
S3: I do. You know, Dana, like as we were talking about the show and that activism and I already mentioned Spike Lee, it occurred to me that a Spike Lee movie would feel logical. I think watching one after the other would really help people see a long sense of tradition and just black political filmmaking. And I am in the mood for Denzel Washington right now who has ever not for Denzel. I mean, just he’s perfect. And that’s all I have to say. So I was thinking we could do Malcolm X because Malcolm X is interesting for so many reasons. A film that was originally going to be made by a white filmmaker that Spike Lee wrested away and made it into his own very much a studio movie that needed to be funded in part by black celebrity and just a movie that is with its flashback structures and its sense of racial past, racial history and how it informs uplift Frederick. And you know, a Malcolm X is one of v. most rhetorically sophisticated speakers, thinkers that this country, in my opinion, has ever produced. And this movie, I think one thing it’s really about is language and hearing these ideas put into action. And it’s an epic and it’s just one of my favorite movies. One of my favorite scenes of performance is one of Spike’s best movies, I think. And it’s kind of in the mood for it. It’s the one that I wish people were turning to instead of do the right thing, even though I loved it the right thing. Malcolm X Justs, it’s singular to me, currently streaming on Netflix, I, iTunes, Amazon, cetera. I think if you have access at all to a physical copy and can watch the making of documentary, I would recommend that because there are some really interesting tidbits about just the funding of this movie and how you even get it made and about how when he was about to show it to Warner Brothers for the first time, he was flying into L.A. as the L.A. riots were happening. Just to give you a sense of like how alive and in the moment that film was in its time, in the way that Micheaux’s films were in their time. So, yeah, I’m in the mood for epic Denzel. Long dance sequences, speeches, betrayal is all there.
S2: A lot of that famous spike shot right where he dallies forward while zooming out or whatever it is that one of my favorite examples of walking down the street effect. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. OK. That’s a great choice. I always love when one of our choices kind of pings off the last choice in that way where you almost could have come up with it during our conversation. I don’t know if you did or not, but I like that. Did you. So Malcolm X, 1992, Spike Lee, it’s streaming on Netflix right now, apparently. And it’s also rentable in many, many places. There shouldn’t be any problem finding a way to see Malcolm X before the next two weeks. Great. I can’t wait for that conversation. Yeah, me either.
S1: All right, well, thank you to all of you listening for being Slate plus subscribers and for listening to this episode of Flashback. As always, you can e-mail us at Flashback Interlaken if you have any recommendations of movies to talk about. We really do read and listed those recommendations. In fact, the Lady Eve, which we talked about on our last show before this one was recommended by two listeners, I just wanted to mention their names, Donald Morrow and Matthew Murphy, who both wrote in and vigorously recommended that we talk about Preston Sturges and that movie in particular. So we do take your suggestions and our compiling a list of them to think about for future episodes. Our producer, as always, is Chow to Forecast and Collins for Vanity Fair. I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks again so much for being a Slate plus subscriber. And we’ll talk you in two weeks.