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INDEPENDENT LENS: Birth Of A Movement

Airs Monday, Feb. 6, 2017 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

D.W. Griffith alongside his long-time cinematographer, Billy Bitzer.

Credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

Above: D.W. Griffith alongside his long-time cinematographer, Billy Bitzer.

Learn how D.W. Griffith’s 1915 "The Birth Of A Nation" sparked a dialogue on racism that continues today.

Over 100 years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which depicted the KKK as heroes and African Americans in the most racist caricatures imaginable, the battle to assert African Americans’ rightful place in both civil society and popular culture continues.

In the wake of the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing social and political turmoil, “Birth Of A Movement” traces the line between Griffith’s controversial epic and Hollywood’s continued legacy of misrepresentation and negative racial stereotypes.

Based on the book, “The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights,” by Dick Lehr, the film features interviews with historians, writers, and filmmakers including Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, Jelani Cobb, Vincent Brown, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Narrated by Danny Glover, “Birth Of A Movement" premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS Monday, Feb. 6, 2017 on PBS.

INDEPENDENT LENS: Birth Of A Movement: Trailer

In 1915, African American newspaper editor and activist William S. Trotter waged a battle against D.W. Griffith’s notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly blockbuster "The Birth of a Nation," which unleashed a fight still raging today about race relations and representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood. "The Birth Of A Movement" features Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

D. W. Griffith’s film, originally titled “The Clansman,” opened in 1915, as America was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. Although virulently racist, the film — a powerful retelling of Reconstruction that portrays the Ku Klux Klan as righteous vigilantes restoring America to greatness — was lauded in the press, and became the first film ever to screen in the White House. It was seen by a quarter of America’s population and transformed Hollywood and the history of cinema.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

The protest against “The Birth of a Nation” came to a head at the Tremont Theatre in Boston in 1915.

“Birth Of A Movement” recounts the little-known story of the battle waged against the film by an early and largely forgotten civil rights activist named William Monroe Trotter. Angered by the film’s unrepentant racism, Trotter led African Americans in a pitched battle against the film’s exhibition that culminated with protests in the streets of Boston, laying the foundation for the civil rights movement to come.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

W.M. Trotter, founder and editor-in-chief of The Guardian, leads the battle against “The Birth of a Nation” in Boston.

As the first African American Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University, Trotter decried the film as a flagrantly racist glorification of the Klan, and as a dangerous and powerful new form of propaganda that would lead to the lynching of African Americans. Together with W.E.B Du Bois, Trotter founded the Niagara Movement, a national network of black activists that would grow into the NAACP.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

W.M. Trotter unites with the NAACP to fight “Birth of a Nation’s” Boston exhibition. The pamphlet "Fighting a Vicious Film - Protest Against 'The Birth of a Nation'" was published by the Boston NAACP.

Ironically, it was Trotter who called for censorship of “The Birth Of A Nation” to control “hate speech,” while Griffith advocated for freedom of artistic expression. Ultimately, Trotter would lose the battle as the film went on to become the first financial blockbuster and established racial stereotyping as a bankable trope. His fears that the film would unleash racial violence proved true; the film is credited with inspiring the rebirth of the Klan which, by the 1920s, was bigger than ever before.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

Posters for “The Birth of a Nation” overtook the streets as part of its groundbreaking PR campaign.

Through interviews with Spike Lee (whose NYU student film “The Answer” was a response to Griffith’s film), Reginald Hudlin, DJ Spooky, and others, “Birth Of A Movement” explores how Griffith’s epic — long taught in film classes as a groundbreaking work of genius — motivated generations of African American filmmakers and artists as they worked to fight and reclaim their history and their onscreen image.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Birth of a Movement, Northern Light Productions 2016

Spike Lee discusses his introduction to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” when he was an NYU film student.

"How much power can one movie assert? Since its release, Griffith's ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has had a profound impact on the film industry and our society," said Lois Vossen, INDEPENDENT LENS executive producer. "At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and a radically different new movie titled Birth of a Nation are at the forefront of many urgent conversations, it is imperative to look back at the history surrounding the original film and the contentious protests and riots it sparked."

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Birth of a Movement - D.W. Griffith: Son of the South - Clip

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "Birth Of A Movement," we learn about the childhood of iconic silent filmmaker D.W. Griffith, director of "Birth of a Nation," who was born 10 years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up in a South that was romanticized for him through folklore despite the fact that he grew up in poverty and was basically considered "white trash."

Birth of a Movement - The Clansman - Clip

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "Birth Of A Movement," director D.W. Griffith, "at the top of his game," is introduced to the book "The Clansman" by Thomas Dixon. When "The Clansman" became a stage play, its pro-KKK, "viciously racist" point of view resulted in protests and race riots -- foreshadowing what was to come when Griffith adapted it into the film "The Birth of a Nation."

Birth of a Movement - Racial Pornography - Clip

In this excerpt from the INDEPENDENT LENS documentary "Birth Of A Movement," the concept of "racial pornography" is discussed alongside startling scenes from D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." The danger of racial pornography is that it "makes people's fantasies [about race] literal," fantasies that in Griffith's film involve exaggerated scary caricatures of blackness.

CREDITS:

A presentation of Northern Light Productions, in association with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Producers: Susan Gray, Bestor Cram and Matthew MacLean. Directors: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram. Editor: Daniel Mooney. Writers: Kwyn Bader and Dick Lear. Associate Producers: Malaika Woluchem and Amy Shafer.

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