The oldest surviving film by an African American filmmaker is 1920's Within Our Gates. The second film in the long career of Oscar Micheaux (the first is lost) it already displays his exceptional talent for cinematic storytelling. Featuring the Victorian sentimentality common to early cinema, the plot's picaresque stream of unlikely turns of events also seamlessly incorporate real issues faced by black Americans in the early 20th century.
The son of a former slave, Micheaux lived in a United States where the Civil War was still very much a part of the first hand national memory. The first title card uses some bitter irony to indicate how racism was still a problem throughout the country, north and south:
The film primarily follows a beautiful young black woman named Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer). Unlike many black men and women of her generation, she's well educated, a fact complicated by trauma in her past we learn about later in the film. The film spends time focusing on women's suffrage and how one racist character fears allowing women the vote specifically because she's afraid of black women voting. But the film is primarily focused on education as it becomes Sylvia's mission to procure funding in the north for a school for black children in the south.
We see one poor black farmer bringing his children to the school, explaining how his kids have made him aware of their need to be educated in order to have any hope of a decent future. This seems improbably forward thinking for a couple of pre-teens but of course they're right, something a racist, wealthy white woman named Geraldine (Bernice Ladd) seems well aware of.
She discourages another wealthy woman, Elena ("Mrs. Evelyn"), from providing funding for the school on the grounds that black people weren't meant to be educated. Geraldine's racism is the kind one might expect but this scene segues into one of several that portray racism operating in the black community. We see a black minister preaching against the right for black citizens to vote, something we later see he's put up to doing by a couple of prominent white men.
This is one of several ways the film seems designed to counter arguments based on cases of submissiveness to racial hierarchy and criminal behaviour in the black community. Sylvia's cousin (Floy Clements) tries to get her to marry a gambler and thief (Jack Chenault), a circumstance that threatens to damage Sylvia's efforts to attain school funding by exposing her past. The last portion of the film is mostly a flashback to her childhood which contains ugly incidents of lynching and rape as well as an improbable circumstance that leads to her own education being financed. In this case, the mechanics of melodrama serve to highlight the injustice of presumptions about personal character based on popular morality. This is a form of argument against Victorian moral purity that would be familiar to readers of a diversity of Victorian authors from Oscar Wilde to Charles Dickens.
Performances throughout the film are very good, particularly from Preer and Clements. Mostly it's the type of broad, theatrical performance necessitated by silent film. Clements is particularly good at heaving her chest to convey stress. But there's also a brutal naturalism to the performances which makes the violence in the later scenes effective.
The film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube: