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Friday, May 27, 2016

Within Our Gates: Classic Silent Film Comes to the Castro with a New Score

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2016 at 1:00 PM

  • Courtesy of San Francisco Silent Film Festival
  • Scene from "Within Our Gates"
Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan has done many of Adolphus Hailstork’s pieces, and he calls him the most accomplished African American composer alive today.

“The most impressive thing about them is how well written they always are,” Morgan said. “There’s nobody better at combining classical training and elements of black music into a specific voice.”

Morgan will conduct Oakland Symphony musicians and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus in the new score Hailstork composed for strings and voice for the 1920 film, Within Our Gates, which screens as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The film, the earliest surviving one made by an African-American director, Oscar Micheaux, deals with racial violence and stereotypes in the story of an African-American woman going north to raise money for a rural school in the South.

Morgan, who says he needs to follow the movie almost as closely as the music when conducting music for a silent film, calls Within Our Gates brilliant.

“There’s a lot packed into it, a lot of social commentary,” he said. “And it’s not a movie where all black characters are good and white characters are bad. It’s a complicated, complex story.”

Within Our Gates is often considered a response to D.W. Griffith's wildly racist 1915 The Birth of a Nation, but Morgan doesn’t see it that way.

click to enlarge Michael Morgan - COURTESY OF THE OAKLAND SYMPHONY
  • Courtesy of the Oakland Symphony
  • Michael Morgan
“I think Micheaux was just out to make art,” he said.

Hailstork’s score highlights the tension of the movie, Morgan says.

“It’s not continual music – you are struck by how many silences there are,” he said. “He has written it so certain movements go with certain scenes and it’s structured so that the music comes back when there are related topics. For example, in the gambling scene similar music is used as when the dishonest preacher is talking about money.”

After conducting the score for the epic silent film, Napoléon, at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre several years ago, Morgan says he has nothing but admiration for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, who put on that event. Morgan conducted Hailstork's score as part of "Birth of an Answer" at the Institute for the Humanities at Old Dominion University in Virginia last September, and then brought it to the attention of officials at the SF Silent Film Festival, seeing how powerful Within Our Gates was.

“It deals with a lot of really terrible subjects, but there’s a lot of humor which keeps it from being horribly oppressive,” Morgan said. “That’s a mark of a great piece of art.”

Within Our Gates, composer Adolphus Hailstork in attendance, Saturday, Jun 4,  5:15 , Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, $16 - $14, buy tickets 

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Emily Wilson


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