Few films in the annals of American cinema have a longer shadow than D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation. Many filmmakers have made works in direct conversation with Birth, and one of the best is Oscar Micheux’s 1920 film, Within Our Gates—which happens to be free all February long at KinoNow.com (just use the promo code “PIONEER”).
Birth culminates with Lynch (George Siegmann in blackface) attempting to assault Elsie (Lillian Gish) in one home while another family holes up in a besieged cabin. Griffith cuts back and forth between these parallel storylines, stitching them together with shots of the KKK riding to the rescue. Cross-cutting, they call it, and Griffith was a master. It’s easy to see why this movie excited the Klan so.
But where Griffith uses cross-cutting to show salvation, Micheaux uses the technique to underline the damnation of being black in America. Again, a woman is menaced, Sylvia, this time by a white man (Grant Gorman), but when Micheaux cuts away from Sylvia under attack, he finds no one riding to her rescue. Instead, we see the lynching of Sylvia’s parents at the hands of a bloodthirsty white mob. Where Griffith goes for rousing suspense, Micheaux targets stark horror.Boulder Weekly Vol 28, No. 27, “Point/Counterpoint“