Last night, on PBS’ INDEPENDENT LENS, the documentary “Birth of a Movement,” from producer-directors Susan Gray and Bestor Cram, premiered at 10pm, and is now available online to watch in full.
Based on the book “The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights” by Dick Lehr, and featuring the contributions of familiar names like Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and DJ Spooky (who created a new score and remix of the original Griffith film), as well as numerous clips from the technically groundbreaking, but deeply racially problematic epic, the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary is an investigation into how D.W. Griffith’s incendiary 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” unleashed a battle still being waged today over race relations and representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood movie/tv-making. It tells the little-known story of African American newspaper editor and activist William M. Trotter who, after “Birth of a Nation’s” release, waged a battle against Griffith’s notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly blockbuster movie, launching what would become a nationwide movement that sought to denounce the work.
In light of last night’s premiere of “Birth of a Movement” and the telling of William M. Trotter’s mostly-unknown story, I thought it would be appropriate to go back and revisit a piece I wrote 2 years ago, about a film that was intended to be the ultimate answer to Griffith’s movie, and the sad story of why it wasn’t – “The Birth of a Race.”
The history of cinema is littered with ambitious film projects that could have changed the course of art form and industry, but were either not made for various reasons, or so compromised by other factors that the end result was vastly different than what was first conceived. And “The Birth of a Race” is definitely one of those latter films.
If the film that was originally conceived was actually made, it would’ve become one of the most important black films ever produced, still to this day. Instead, the final result was a travesty.
The story began in 1915 when Griffith’s 192-minute epic “The Birth of a Nation” was released to the public. It was the film that single handedly revolutionized movies and movie-making, turning them from an entertaining novelty comprised of mostly short reels, into an art form and business that could make a lot of money for a lot of people (In today’s dollars, “Nation” would easily be in the top ten of the highest-grossing movies in film history).
But “Nation” is also, of course, a vile film.
Griffith, who was a proud Southerner and unrepentant supporter of the Confederacy, rewrote the actual facts of American Civil War history in his film, turning black people into violent savages who were intent on “crushing the white South under the heel of the black South” with “ruin, devastation rape and pillage.” It is up to the film’s heroes, the KKK, who literally ride to the rescue at the last minute to save the day, and put the black villains back in their place.
Needless to say, the film was, and still is today, very controversial. And it should not be surprising that there were numerous demonstrations and protests against it; all of which Griffith, by the way, totally loved since it meant more publicity for his film. And it wasn’t too long before the idea came about to make a film that was to be sort of a response to “Birth of a Nation,” as a way of countering its lies.
At first, the NAACP considered the idea of such a film, but quickly dropped the project, so it was left to Emmett J. Scott (pictured above with his family), who had been the personal secretary to Booker T. Washington, to pick up where the NAACP left off.
His initial idea was very modest. With financing from well-to-do and middle class black people, Scott intended to make a 15-minute short called “Lincoln’s Dream,” that would show the accomplishments of black people, which was intended to be screened before “Birth of a Nation” in theaters.
However, as Scott further developed “Lincoln’s Dream,” bringing in screenwriters and changing the title of the film to “The Birth of a Race,” his project grew larger and grander in scope, to eventually become a 3-hour black film epic that would out-rival “Nation.”
Seeing that the project was getting more expensive than originally planned, Scott tried to get Universal Pictures involved with the financing, but they turned him down. So putting Booker T. Washington’s “do-for-self” philosophy into action, he went out and decided to make his epic film on his own, in Chicago.
Unfortunately, the production was plagued with problems from the beginning.
Scott, at first, was actually able to get film producer Louis B. Mayer (before he went on to found MGM), to provide part of the financing for the film, provided he could find outside investors to fund the rest of the project. Scott, through a Chicago associate, was able to raise some money to make the film, because of the subject and his association with Booker T. Washington, who was considered to be a hero among black people back then. However the associate turned out to be a con-man and ran off with the money. Upon this development, Mayer told Scott, “Good luck” and left the project.
Scott soldiered on with what he had, but the poorly-funded film suffered from inadequate, low rent production values and delays. Furthermore, when bad weather in Chicago caused even more problems, the whole production was forced to move to Tampa, Florida to be completed.
But the serious lack of money forced Scott to eventually bring in white backers to help to keep his ship afloat.
Naturally, those new backers weren’t so keen on making a black film (certainly not in response to “The Birth of a Nation), so, little by little, scene by scene, and rewrite by rewrite, Scott’s grand version for a black film epic became a simplistic World War I film about two German-American brothers who find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the war. In fact, with the exception of a few brief scenes with black characters in them, and some stereotyped Africans, there are hardly any black people in “Birth of a Race” at all.
The final result opened in Chicago in December 1918, just a month after the end of WWI, and flopped, quickly disappearing from public view afterward. I don’t know if there’s even an entire print of the film in existence, except for the brief clip below. And although Scott is still listed in historical records as the producer of the “Birth of a Race,” I have no doubt that the final version must have been a great disappointment to him. His grand vision for an epic big screen response to Griffith’s own epic, turned into a disaster.
But by any definition of the word, Emmett J. Scott is a true black film pioneer. Check out a blurry excerpt from “Birth of a Race” below, and then do yourself a favor and watch the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary “Birth of a Movement” immediately on PBS’ website (it’s not embeddable unfortunately, so click on the link). According to the website, “Birth of a Movement” will be available online only until March 9, so catch it while you can.