Tuesday, 17 February 2015

"Birth of a Nation" comes to the Grand Leek 1915




A few days ago I saw the film “Selma” which chronicles the fight for Civil Rights in the US in the 1960s in the Southern States of the USA. It is a story well known to me even as a child of 9 I can clearly recall the bombing of a Baptist Chapel that resulted in the death of four black girls. What resonated with me that these girls would have been the same age as me. The unfairness and the injustice of this singular event struck me at the time as a consequence of this I followed the Civil Rights Movement even from the distance of several thousand miles from our terraced house in Stoke.

 “Selma” includes  all the leading characters of the period Martin Luther King, George Wallace, LBJ and J Edgar Hoover and some of the events of the mid 60s which led to President Johnson signing into law legislation that ensured that Blacks could vote as many Southern States such as Alabama had made it difficult for them to exercise their democratic rights. The film is an honest one and , for example, shows Martin Luther in an honest light. It is not an exercise in hagiography.

This year sees the 100th anniversary of film that portrayed the American Black in a very different way. “Birth of a Nation” was the first Hollywood blockbuster and achieved a world wide showing. In 1915 the film was shown in Leek at the Grand and the newspaper reports of the time indicate that it was a popular film with the film shown over two weeks an unheard of showing at the time. It was a success repeated in many communities in Britain. The tone, feel and the message that it portrayed was as far as it could possibly be from “Selma”

  The film was directed by Southerner DW Griffiths and was his first major success. The film charged a high price for admission . It had a special score composed for the film and at its premier a  30 piece orchestra played. In 10 years the film had reached an audience of 50 million . It made Hollywood millions in profits. Beyond the money it made it wanted to send out the message of white supremacy over the black population of the USA. Thomas Dixon, author of the book and the movie, stated that his goal "was to revolutionise Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every [white] man in the audience into a good Democrat!"

In many cities the showing stirred racist violence against African Americans, and no wonder. White actors put on blackface and played evil African Americans who were grasping for political power over white people—except when they were intent on raping white women. The “gallant” Klan were shown as heroes  riding to the rescue of be leagued white communities. It projected an air of authenticity by using pictures of Lincoln and from the American Civil War, and quotes by noted historians such as President Woodrow Wilson.  The President was a noted racist and called it "history written in lightning" after it was shown in the White House.  When it was shown to members of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Edward White proudly confided to author Thomas Dixon, "I rode with the Klan, sir."

The movie also stirred the first large nationwide in the US Black-led protests and boycotts. So many black (and white) people marched on theatres that some mayors ordered the removal of lynching and other scenes, or cancelled showings. African American and other historians exposed the movie's lies, distortions, and omissions.
It is impossible to say what response the film had in Leek. Reading the local newspapers during the early 20th century it is very easy to find disparaging and patronising comments about Blacks. Concert parties and glee clubs featured minstrel shows with whites blacking up, the use of language unacceptable to ears of people in 2015. Although the debate in Leek a couple of years ago about “Golliwogs” rather proves the point that old stereotypes die hard. It is worth noting that the “Golliwog” was created by the American  born  Frances Upton in the 1890s. It quickly became a term of racist abuse.

However it is some measure of progress that 100 years after Wilson welcomed fellow Southerner Griffiths to the White House Barack Obama welcomed the Black Director of “Selma” to the White House which must be a measure of progress although the tensions in US society remain