D.W. Griffith was an American master, whose stirring visuals as a filmmaker overwhelmed the viewers of his time. When he was releasing movies, over 100 years ago, he deployed techniques in editing and camerawork so advanced that they’re still used today.
“And he brought it to bear with a hate message — a message of racism,” says Dick Lehr, an author and professor at Boston University.
Griffith released America’s first blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, a film that offered racial distortions of the Civil War and Reconstruction-era United States — and drew record audiences.
African-Americans were appalled by the film, and organized against it.
“An amazing opposition,” says Lehr, who wrote a book, also called Birth of a Nation, about the protests against the film. “You never realize this kind of protest went on in 1915. They took to the streets, they took to the courts, they took to the statehouse, saying, ‘We cannot stand idly by as this new, big thing called a feature film starts brainwashing American viewers.’ ”
Emmett J. Scott agreed. Scott was a trusted aide to Booker T. Washington, the iconic founder of the Tuskegee Institute, and he became a major figure in African-American culture in his own right.
“He played everything for dignity, intelligence,” says Thomas Cripps, a film historian who has written extensively about Emmett J. Scott. “He was an important figure in trying to counter the image of African-Americans as buffoons and fools and so on.”
Scott got to work on a film of his own. He wanted to produce an epic about what he saw as the real history of black America — complete with a taunting title: The Birth of a Race.
“The idea was to in fact challenge The Birth of a Nation, to say that there was another side to the story,” Cripps says.
Scott’s vision for the film survives to this day. You can read it on microfilm at the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection at UCLA. There, Scott’s 1916 prospectus — a brochure meant to entice investors — can be read on a glowing monitor:
“The Birth of a Race, the true story of the Negro — his life in Africa, his enslavement, his freedom, his achievements — together with his past, present and future relations with his white neighbor. It will bring close the future in which the races — all races — will see each other as they are.”
Emmett J. Scott hired the Selig Polyscope Company to shoot his epic. By some accounts, Selig shot fully half the movie as Scott envisioned it. Then, with production only half complete, all that footage was thrown away.
“I don’t know what happened to the script or what,” says Josie Walters-Johnston, a reference librarian at the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress.
Walters-Johnston works in the one place in the world where you can actually see the only surviving print of The Birth of a Race. She’s also African-American. Walters-Johnston was eager to watch The Birth of a Race for this story, and to see how close it came to producer Emmett J. Scott’s original lofty goals.
“Not close at all,” she says. “It … missed the mark almost completely.”
The finished film is a Bible epic awkwardly fused with vignettes from American history. It’s unclear what happened, but the sole surviving print is nothing like Scott’s vision.
“The only time there is a direct address to slavery was during the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt,” Walters-Johnston says. “This film flattened it and talked about the race as being the human race.”
The few film historians who even know of The Birth of a Race blame the outbreak of World War I for the film’s complete shift of focus.
A 1918 review in Variety offers another possibility: racism.
“The Selig Company, which had arranged to produce the picture dropped out due to the character of its propaganda, whereupon the character of the picture was altered,” reads the review. “A large quantity of film, depicting certain phases of the advancement of the Negro race, was dropped.”
One scene in the existing print suggests what might have been. Two farmers — one black, one white — working in a field, as equals.
“The white farmer stands up, hearing this imaginary call to arms,” says Walters-Johnston. “Dissolve into both of the men wearing identical army uniforms, equipped identically — so there’s no distinct difference between them. And then they kind of march off to war together.”
That lone image of racial equality is almost all that remains of Emmett J. Scott’s original dream.