A history of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which triggered a substantial protest by African-Americans, who resented their vile portrayal in the film.
Former Boston Globe journalist Lehr (Journalism/Boston Univ.; The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide, 2009, etc.) reintroduces readers to William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934), a crusading black journalist in Boston who was involved in a number of protest actions against institutional racism. The author frequently alternates the focus between Griffith and Trotter, so we learn their back stories along the way. His two principals were different in just about every way: Trotter’s father, though born into slavery, somehow made his way to Boston; he fought with the 55th and 54th Massachusetts infantries. Trotter went to Harvard and became friends with William Lloyd Garrison and W.E.B. Du Bois. However, jobs were tough to find, so he set up his own newspaper, the Guardian. David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was from Kentucky, “a child,” writes Lehr, “in search of a bedtime story.” Griffith tried acting, writing and directing, and he pioneered (if not invented, as he claimed) some narrative techniques that directors continue to employ. Trotter, becoming an activist, drew his bead on Booker T. Washington (too accommodating, Trotter thought); Griffith thought Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman (about the heroic KKK) would make a great film. So the clash commenced. Lehr carefully charts the arcs of the dispute: the behavior of public officials (not good), the protests at the movie theaters, the actions in the courts, the responses of whites (they loved the film) and blacks (who despised it for its view of them as primitives). We learn a lot, as well, about the making and marketing of the film and its uneasy status today.
A powerful rendering of an enduring conflict.