Wycliffe Gordon adds musical voice to silent film on race relations
“Within Our Gates” is one of the earliest movies created by an African-American filmmaker, and on Feb. 21, there will be a special showing in honor of its centennial.
“It was filmed in 1919, but it was released in 1920,” said Wycliffe Gordon, who will conduct a 20-piece jazz orchestra in playing the score he composed for the silent film. Two soloists will also perform with the ensemble.
“Within Our Gates” depicts race relations 100 years ago. The story is about a woman who dedicates herself to saving an almost bankrupt school for poor African-American children. The film confronts the injustices of the day and was Oscar Micheaux’s response to the film “Birth of a Nation,” according to Gordon, who studied the film extensively as he composed its score.
The film was once thought lost. A copy was discovered in Spain under a different title, and it was preserved by the Library of Congress in 1993.
Gordon cautions those seeing the film.
“The scenes may be disturbing,” he said. “These are things that were taking place in the South. It’s the truth of what happened.”
Jazzmobile commissioned Gordon to compose the 77-minute score to accompany the film in 2011. It premiered at Columbia University in New York in 2011 and again at Symphony Space in 2013 when it was recorded. The soundtrack is titled “Within These Gates of Mine.”
Gordon said he’s excited about bringing the film and the live music to the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre stage.
“I’ve wanted to do this since 2015 or 2016,” he said. “It’s a big undertaking.”
Some of the musicians from the original soundtrack recording will be playing as well.
Gordon said it’s fitting to honor Micheaux during black history month because of his influence on film.
Micheaux produced more than 40 movies in his lifetime. He financed them by writing books and selling them door-to-door. He couldn’t get white companies to publish his books, so he founded his own publishing company. His first film, “The Homesteader,” was produced in 1919.
In 1925, Micheaux filmed “Body and Soul,” which marked the film debut of Paul Robeson. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Robeson became famous for his rendition of the song “Ol Man River” in “Show Boat.” He also played the titular role of “Othello” on both the London stage as well as on Broadway.
“Within Our Gates” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 with discounts for students.