By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
One hundred years ago, Director D.W. Griffith’s epic film “Birth of A Nation” (BOAN) was released ushering in many of the artistic and technical standards applied in the movie industry.
It also had a dark side, depicting the KKK as a protector of post Civil War southern virtue, while projecting African-Americans as incompetent, dangerous and uncivilized.
There is a little known story historians are slowly unearthing, of a national effort by African-Americans and Whites to criticize and counter the racist and negative images of Black Americans projected by the movie.
The NAACP led an effort to have the filmed banned and boycotted, and crafted a message countering the negative images of Black Americans.
That resistance and push back played out here in Hampton Roads, specifically in Norfolk, as Blacks and Whites enlisted in this campaign.
On September 18 at the Historic Attucks Theatre and September 21 at the Chandler Recital Hall at ODU, a forum has been organized to showcase the political, social and artistic responses to the film then and now.
Organized by the ODU Institute for Humanities, a program called “The Birth of an Answer” is a celebration of 100 years of African-American creative responses to BOAN.
At the Attucks at 7:30 p.m. on September 18, there
will be a screening of African-American pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” (1920) accompanied by a live musical performance of a film score written by Adolphus Hailstork and featuring the Harlem Quartet.
The I. Sherman Greene Chorale, directed by guest conductor Michael Morgan will perform. An encore performance will take place on September 21 at 8 p.m. at ODU’s Chandler Recital Hall.
Also at the Attucks, a panel of African-American filmmakers and producers will discuss the challenges of telling compelling Black American stories.
Moderated by film critic Mike Sargent, the panel features Black film innovator Melvin Van Peebles; actor and movie producer, Tim Reid; Zeinabu Irene Davis; and Michael Swanson. The Chandler Hall dissuasion will feature Adolphus Hailstork and Derrick Borte.
Both locations will screen a short fiction film called “Our Nation,” depicting the Hampton Roads response to “Birth of a Nation”
Dr. Avi Santo is an Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for the Humanities ODU.
“We want to unite the community to create a critical conversation about the push back which took place against ‘Birth of a Nation’ 100 years ago,” said Santo. “We are not celebrating the film, because of the troubling images of African-Americans. We want to show how the community reacted not only politically, but artistically, to the false claims and images of that film.”
Santo said the film highlighted all of the fears, prejudices and stereotypes of Black men, especially, as savages and sexual predators, especially for White women, and as incompetent and dangerous.
The film debuted when Jim Crow segregation was in place. Whites were pushing back against Black efforts to secure equality and for civil rights.
“An effort to get the movie banned failed,” said Santo. “So the NAACP and other organizations wanted to counter the film’s message with positives ones.”
Responding to Black protests, distributors were convinced to use a film illustrating positive examples of Black progress called, “Birth of a Race,” a short promotion film produced by Hampton Institute, to be shown immediately after the “Birth of a Nation” was screened in movie houses.
This movie revealed that Blacks were unified in the rejection of the racist film, but divided on how to react, according to program collaborator Vandora Williams, a faculty member of Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism.
She is writing her dissertation on the reaction to the “Birth of a Nation” 100 years ago
Williams is an Emmy award-winning producer and writer who produced a documentary on the history of Norfolk’s Church Street.
Williams said that while some Black leaders supported the idea of using the Hampton film, many organizations and leaders, including the NAACP, resented using the school’s reputation and its film
“Birth of a Race” “because they felt that the school and a part of the Black community were endorsing BOAN.”
“Birth of a Nation” was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s book “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” (1905), which depicts a “heroic” story of the KKK’s creation in defense of southern White virtue in the face of uncontrollable and dangerous free Blacks threatening rape and ruin during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).
Dixon, according to Santo, had ties to Norfolk and staged a play based on the book at a local theater.
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