Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Within Our Gates

Jane Gaines' essay "Within Our Gates: From Race Melodrama to Opportunity Narrative" interrogates the role of Oscar Micheaux's film Within Our Gates within the genre and historical context of race melodramas. Gaines troubles traditional understandings of race melodramas as films which primarily "[take] the question of visibility or invisibility of blood as part of [their] narrative investigation", and shifts it instead to a narrative with more fluid, blurred, focal points. Gaines argues that Micheaux's Within Our Gates (specifically) focuses on the parentage of its central character Sylvia as a means of interrogating the contemporary understanding of black-white sexual relationships, particularly in a pre-Civil War period. Gaines suggests that the fact that Sylvia's parentage is intently focused on in the film highlights the prevalence of rape and sex abuse in the pre-Civil War and antebellum periods. Gaines posits that this focus in the film, and the focus upon the suffering and betrayal of Sylvia, shifts the focus of Micheaux's film to the injustices and "social crimes" that African Americans faced at this time. Gaines argues that Micheaux does not so much change the form of melodrama to suit his purposes, but rather that he utilizes the genre to create these "opportunity narratives" which so effectively illustrate the social injustices of the period.

Gaines' article allowed me to understand Within Our Gates on a more technical level. Not having a great deal of experience with melodrama in film, I found it difficult to locate the nuanced use of the genre that Gaines identifies in Micheaux's work. In The Birth of a Nation, I certainly saw many of the generic characteristics she describes here, but her careful analysis of the differences in portrayal and focus in Micheaux's film cast light on the utilization of the genre to underscore social injustice. One thing I would like to take another look at is the scene Gaines analyzes in great detail (pgs. 74-75) in which Sylvia is attacked by her father, and the scar is discovered. The way Gaines explains it, the fact that Sylvia is both "raped" and "not raped" in this scene are equally compelling components to our reading. I suppose this connects to my question, so perhaps I will jump to that.

Question: Gaines' suggests that "new black feminist work...urges us to consider black women's respectability" and given this, it is important to understand that Sylvia being either/or "raped" and "not raped" in this scene is equally profound. How did you read this scene? Does it matter whether we are to interpret this as a scene of sexual assault? Did you feel that this was implied?

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