Ithaca College Quarterly 2004/2
South Hill Today


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College Screens Rare Film

Silent movies were actually anything but silent. On the contrary, points out professor of cinema Patricia Zimmermann, they "were loud, interactive, improvisational, collective, and topical."

In 1915 enthusiastic audiences nationwide made director D. W. Griffith's cinematically innovative but archracist film The Birth of a Nation a box-office smash hit. Not everyone was happy about glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, however; in response, independent African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux produced Within Our Gates in 1920. The film, recognized as the first feature by an African American, combines an unflinching portrayal of the gross violations perpetrated by whites against blacks with a determined call for black idealism, according to Zimmermann. Because of some harrowing sequences showing lynching and rape, the film was repeatedly recut by censors. Although Micheaux rented out spaces to show the uncut version, few people saw the film as he intended it.

The Body and Soul Ensemble performed during the Park celebration

Lost for more than 70 years, Within Our Gates was rediscovered and restored by the Library of Congress in 1993. As part of Ithaca College's celebration of Black History Month this February, the remixed Within Our Gates was screened on campus with a complementary series of lectures and performances. Among the performers were Fe Nunn ('80) and His Musical Productions, the Body and Soul Ensemble, and the Ida B. Wells Spoken Word Ensemble.

Nunn, with the collaboration of faculty historians, sociologists, film theorists, media and film historians, filmmakers, and performers, composed a special score to accompany the silent film. Zimmermann, who coproduced the event with Nunn, says, "Commissioning a local composer such as Fe Nunn to score a silent film for a live film performance is a historical first for Ithaca College. The huge turnout of audience members from on campus and downtown shows us that people are very interested in learning about this painful and important time in U.S. history.''

Photo by Sherryl D. Sinkow

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