A recent documentary and a CMU production shined a bright light on an unending struggle, writes Sharon Eberson
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Newspaperman William Monroe Trotter, center, launched a campaign of opposition to D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie "The Birth of a Nation." Trotter's efforts are part of the PBS "independent Lens" documentary "Birth of a Movement."
D.W. Griffith's film, "The Birth of a Nation," was originally called "The Clansman."
Klansmen ride against the army of occupation in this scene from D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," filmed in Hollywood, Calif. in 1914. The film was based on on Thomas Dixon's "The Clansman," a novel and play set in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The film is said to promote white supremacy.
Director Spike Lee on seeing "The Birth of a Nation" for the first time: "I didn't have a problem with them showing the film, but they left out things [like] that it used as a recruiting tool by the Klan. [The instructor] just said 'Here's the father of cinema, and it's a great film and watch.' No context whatsoever."
John Clay III (center, seated at piano) as Coalhouse Walker and other cast members of "Ragtime" by the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I have been spending a lot of time in the early 1900s lately, about the time that my mother’s parents arrived in Pittsburgh from Poland in search of work and acceptance. They found both, but others have not been so lucky.
My first journey back in time, to 1915, came courtesy of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, which invited me to take part in a panel at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Hill District branch. The discussion followed a viewing of the PBS documentary “Birth of a Movement” and a look back at the horrific movie “The Birth of a Nation.”
The next step back, closer to 1910, came courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama’s production of “Ragtime,” which featured award-winning music, glorious vocals and a message of how racial and immigrant-based prejudice can destroy lives.
‘Birth of a Movement’
Aired last month, “Birth of a Movement” was written by Kwyn Bader and Dick Lear and produced and directed by Susan Gray and Bestor Cram. The DVD, “Independent Lens: Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster,” will be available on May 23. It tells the story of William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard-educated Boston newspaperman who protested the blatant racism in the 1915 premiere of “The Birth of a Nation.” Trotter was one of the United States’ most prominent and outspoken advocates for African-American rights, working with W.E.B. DuBois to found the Niagara Movement, which became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
Yet I had seen his name only in passing until the PBS “Independent Lens” series aired “Birth of a Movement” — an example of what public funding of the arts can do, but that’s a topic for another time.
“The Birth of a Nation” has been hailed for its pioneering camera and storytelling techniques that revolutionized cinema. The D.W. Griffith film, originally called “The Clansman” and based on the Thomas Dixon novel of that same name, unleashed a visual nightmare that unapologetically demonized African-Americans and made heroes of white supremacists.
Griffith was not concerned with the concepts of art vs. truth and free speech vs. responsibility — he believed “The Birth of a Nation” to represent the world as it was, with savage black men in the Reconstruction United States coming to brutalize white women, and the Clan riding in on white horses to save the day.
“One of the things racial pornography does is it makes people’s fantasies literal,” said Vincent Brown, a Harvard historian who was interviewed for “Birth of a Movement.”
In early 1915, the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Griffith and Dixon showed the film to Woodrow Wilson, the novelist’s college classmate. The film included some of Wilson’s own earlier writings. It was “this three-plus hour epic drama, which portrays blacks as beasts, in effect, and everyone there thought it was a terrific piece of work,” Dick Lehr, a Boston journalist and educator, said in “Birth of a Movement.”
It was the first movie ever shown at the White House — shown to a Southern president who campaigned on rights for black Americans and then named a Cabinet of all-white Southerners who put up barriers between white and black government workers that never had existed before.
“Birth of a Movement” juxtaposes the journeys of Trotter and Griffith as their purposes collide. The newspaperman went to the White House to complain about “The Birth of a Nation” and tried to have it stopped from being shown in his hometown, to no avail. On the night it opened in Boston, he and thousands of supporters marched through the streets of Boston to the theater. Some, including Trotter, were arrested. Some made it into the lobby. The point was made, and a precedent of civil disobedience was set.
John Ford, the historian at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, was alongside me on the PBMF panel. He said Pittsburgh was one of several cities that refused to show “The Birth of a Nation,” which the fledgling NAACP called “the meanest vilification of the Negro race.”
Philadelphia joined Boston in marching against the movie, and along with Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis, managed to shut down screenings. According to filmsite.org, “Lawsuits and picketing tailed the film for years when it was re-released (in 1924, 1931 and 1938).”
From the documentary, we learned that Spike Lee’s first film was made while he was a graduate film student at New York University. His film class had been assigned to watch “The Birth of a Nation” for its pioneering techniques — with no mention of the overt racism and glorification of white supremacy.
That experience of being told to view the movie through the narrow lens of how it was made and not what it had to say turned into Mr. Lee’s short film, “The Answer,” in which a black screenwriter is hired to write the $50 million remake of “The Birth of a Nation.”
As Mr. Lee explained in “Birth of a Movement,” “I didn’t have a problem with them showing the film, but they left out things [like] that it was used as a recruiting tool by the Clan. [The instructor] just said, ‘Here’s the father of cinema, and it’s a great film and watch it.’ No context whatsoever.”
It was impossible to watch “Birth of a Movement” without applying the context of our daily lives and quickly unfolding events, including the women’s march on Washington.
I felt a similar connection to the past when, the same week as the panel discussion, “Ragtime” opened at Carnegie Mellon. It has one of my favorite scores, by Dormont’s Stephen Flaherty and his writing partner Lynn Ahrens, and adapts E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name.
The story creates the intersection of three families — an upper-class white family from New Rochelle, N.Y.; a European immigrant father and daughter; and an African-American musician who fathers a child and makes plans to marry the mother — and is set against a historical backdrop. There’s “the trial of the century,” the killing of architect Sanford White by the socialite Harry Thaw, jealous over his relationship with Thaw’s wife, the opportunistic Evelyn Nesbit. Other historic figures include Robert Peary, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, whose moderate, separate-but-equal views were antithetical to those of Trotter.
In “Ragtime,” the immigrant Jewish father, Tateh, steps off a boat and at first finds only rejection, abuse and poverty, but he eventually is able to rise from the mean streets to become a filmmaker and achieve his American dream.
The black piano man, Coalhouse Walker, starts with optimism for the future, bolstered by the symbol of his success — a new car.
It was incredibly moving to hear Carnegie Mellon’s John Clay III as Coalhouse and Arica Jackson as his love, Sarah, deliver “Wheels of Dream,” with the lyric:
The times are starting to roll. Any man can get where he wants to If he’s got some fire in his soul. We’ll see justice, Sarah, And plenty of men Who will stand up And give us our due.
At the height of his joy, Coalhouse is brought crashing down to earth by an unabashed act of racial hatred, sending him down a violent path toward the justice that he is denied.
Taking in what has happened to Coalhouse and his family is Mother, a once-dutiful wife whose consciousness has been raised. As Mother, CMU’s Hannah Berggren belts a sort of “I Am Woman” for the 1910s, in which she declares, “We can never go back to before.”
Both the documentary “Birth of a Movement” and the musical “Ragtime” time travel a century into the past to offer unflinching perspectives on oppression and racism in America.
Mother said it best — we can never go back to before.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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