The oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director, Within Our Gates is a searing account of the US racial situation during the early twentieth century, including the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration of Southern blacks to cities in the North, and the emergence of the "New Negro". Directed by Oscar Micheaux, the film is one of the earliest and finest examples in the genre of "race films". Produced outside the main Hollywood machine, these films were purposefully made for an all-black audience, featured black actors, and became important arenas through which representations of African-Americans in mass culture were contested.
The plot of Within Our Gates centres around a a mixed-race school teacher named Sylvia Landry who travels North to seek funds for a rural school in the Deep South for poor black children. Falling in love with a black doctor (who is “passionately engaged in social questions”), she reveals her family's past, including the lynchings of her parents and the story behind her own European ancestry.
From the American Historical Association: "Despite the rickety plot turns ... Micheaux offers a searing portrait of the ideology of white supremacy. Overturning prevailing wisdom, portrayed notably in D. W. Griffith’s film epic Birth of a Nation (1915), Within Our Gates underscores that racism is fueled by ignorance and hinders national unity. Whereas Griffith’s film suggests that the revelation of blacks’ true capacities and natures would restore racial unity and fraternity among northern and southern whites, Micheaux counters that if northern whites could see through the fog of white southern bigotry they would recognize that blacks were citizens worthy of both rights and respect."