A silent film — any silent film, of any historical, emotional or artistic value — can transcend a well-meaning but not-great musical score. Silents have done that for more than century in performance. I’ve seen great movies, from “Sherlock, Jr.” and “Potemkin” on down, leap into a new realm of the fantastic when paired, live, by fresh, vital musical accompaniment, sometimes on solo piano, sometimes a small-group band, one time a theremin all over a screening of “Metroplis,” occasionally a full orchestra.
But a brand new score is rare, and conjures a new horizon of possibilities.
This Monday at the Music Box Theatre, one night only, the Alvin Cobb Jr. jazz trio will team up with a Chicago landmark: the earliest surviving silent feature by Black filmmaking pioneer Oscar Micheaux, “Within Our Gates” (1920). The film was made here, on Chicago streets, in Chicago brownstones and studio spaces, in the wake of the notorious bloodshed of Chicago’s “Red Summer” of 1919.
Chicago censors held up release of Micheaux’s film for two months, deeming its storyline and content “pre-eminently dangerous” in the wake of the fatal violence the year before, sparked by white swimmers offended by a Black youth encroaching on a stretch of shoreline considered, at least by whites, as white-only. The boy drowned after being stoned by a white mob. The city responded with two weeks of bloodshed.
“Within Our Gates” doesn’t address that incident directly, but by way of a wildly careening melodrama it takes on the realities of racism in Northern states and Southern states, while addressing the cultural damage done by the monstrous hit that was D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation.”
“Within Our Gates” is a 1920 silent film by Black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. (Micheaux Book & Film Company)
In Micheaux’s story, a Southern Black woman (Evelyn Preer) ventures north to Boston, first to visit her conniving cousin (Floy Clements, later the first Black woman in the Illinois state legislature). Later in the film she returns to Boston, played by Chicago, to raise funds for a Black school back home threatened with bankruptcy.
That’s just the beginning. “Within Our Gates” packs an arresting amount of plot in 79 minutes, leading to a crosscutting climax between the film’s present day, with Preer’s secret-laden character threatened with sexual assault, and a flashback to a lynching sequence that retains its brute force more than 100 years later.
Cobb Jr.’s original score, completed earlier this month, has no interest in sticking narrowly to one period or style, the composer told me Thursday.
A Chicago resident since 2013, when he came from Atlanta for graduate studies in jazz and performance at Northwestern, Cobb Jr. tried to “figure out themes that were always supportive of the characters.” While staying “in the jazz realm of things,” tailored to keyboard, bass and percussion, the music ventures “somewhere between traditionalism and something more modern — a little further down the timeline.”
Composer Alvin Cobb Jr.’s musical score, performed by his trio, accompanies the Sept. 26 Music Box Theatre screening. (Provided by Alvin Cobb Jr.)
The movie has its share of extreme coincidence. Micheaux’s budget was bare-bones. The results transcend it all.
“I was surprised how applicable it is to today,” says Cobb, Jr., who works part-time at the Music Box when he’s not performing around town. Or at home. “It explains race, identity, class, Black/white struggles but also class struggles within the Black community. He conveyed all that so well in 1920. He’s a name I’ve heard for a while, but I’m not sure he gets the recognition he should.”
But things are changing. This is thanks in large part to the efforts of scholar and historian Jacqueline Stewart. She’s a longtime UChicago film professor, also Turner Classic Movies host of “Silent Sundays” and, more recently, director and president of Los Angeles’ Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
“Within Our Gates” is the silent film directed by early Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and released in 1920, during the Jim Crow era. (Micheaux Book & Film Company)
Earlier this year on UChicago’s “Big Brains” podcast, Stewart addressed “Within Our Gates” and its paradoxical mixture of rudimentary filmmaking circumstances and righteously provocative, even revolutionary content.
Of the film’s climax marked by cruelly contrasted examples of brutality, she said: “It’s just remarkable that (Micheaux) had the boldness to represent (two sides) of racial violence, racially motivated violence, rape and lynching together. … He really didn’t shy away from issues that we’re still talking about.”
On Monday, we’ll hear what composer Cobb, Jr. and his trio have to say, musically, about what Micheaux expressed more than a century ago.
“Within Our Gates” screens 7 p.m. Sept. 26, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Tickets $12 at musicboxtheatre.com
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
This content was originally published here.