The Birth of a Nation – Dick Lehr

The Birth of a Nation – Dick Lehr

The Birth of a Nation chronicles the lives of D.W. Griffith, director of the 1915 film for which the book is titled, and William Monroe Trotter, a black civil rights leader who fought to have the film banned from theaters in Boston and the United States.

Lehr gives a brief backdrop of both men’s upbringings: Griffith the son of a Civil War veteran who fought for the South; Trotter also the son of Civil War veteran, but for the North, and who spearheaded equal pay for his all-black Union regiment.

The meat of book follows Griffith as he goes from failed stage actor to pioneer in directing “moving pictures,” and Trotter as he goes from Harvard-educated businessman to a leader in the civil rights movement. The stories of the two collide with the production and release of The Birth of a Nation.

I haven’t seen the film, nor do I have any desire to, but the impact it left on the technical aspect of directing films as we know it today can’t be understated. Unfortunately, nor can the blatant racism it promoted. Lehr does an admirable job of explaining both, noting that Griffith, with his use of quick cuts of multiple cameras, close-up shots and musical scores  laid the foundation for what we expect from a movie. No one at the time had seen anything like it. That the content is so overtly racist (the film is at least partially credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan) is a moral tragedy.

The release of the film spurred a heated battle, with groups around the country fighting to ban it from theaters on the basis of its portrayal of black Americans. No one fought more fiercely than Trotter. Through lawsuits, lobbying both Boston and Massachusetts legislature, and organized protests, Trotter led the charge against Griffith and his work. The biggest obstacle facing him, other than the inherent prejudice of those Trotter needed to help stop the film, was that Griffith claimed protection due to his First Amendment right to free speech. Trotter, a newspaper owner himself, was extremely wary of abridging that right. Instead he hoped to shutter the film based on its morality, or lack thereof, when depicting black characters.

In a long and valiant fight Trotter, and the majority of the black population of Boston, got the state legislature to appoint three officials the power to stop a film they deemed immoral. What seemed to be a victory turned to defear when the three officials met and, after a short deliberation, deemed The Birth of a Nation fit for showing. The film played for months in Boston and around the country, grossing an estimated $60 million in 1915.

I read this book for a few reasons: first, as someone who works in television I wanted to know the history of the movie that essentially wrote the blueprint for how modern films are made. Second, as a journalism major I found the debate surrounding the film fascinating. It serves as a perfect case study for free speech versus what today we call “hate speech.” Where does Griffith’s right to produce racist content lose out to the harm it caused to black Americans? What qualifies as harmful speech, presenting a “clear and present danger” as it would later be labeled, and what is protected served as the focal point of the long debate in 1915. That debate still rages today.

This leads me to the third reason: a theme of the book, and therefore a theme of the reality of this conflict, is the use of a new medium to push a racist agenda. The sheer amazement and visceral reaction to a motion picture in 1915 played an undeniable role in The Birth of a Nation’s success at the box office and in court. Griffith’s film simply made too much money and, in a strategic marketing ploy, had the tacit support of judges, lawmakers and even President Woodrow Wilson. The use of a new medium to enrapture the populace but also serve as a prejudiced tool reminded me, in some ways, of social media today. Something can spread across the country in an instant, and in the time it takes for anyone to recognize it as toxic it’s too late. Similarly to movies in 1915, Twitter today is new and wide-reaching. Similarly to the racism in The Birth of a Nation, hateful and racist attacks can be posted and shared far and wide. And, just as in 1915, bigoted language pushes the limits of what the First Amendment protects. This new, instant and widespread medium arrived quickly, and the world still doesn’t quite know how to handle it just yet.

I don’t know who to credit this quote to, but I heard it from a professor: “History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes.” When I finished this book I felt disheartened. Disheartened because the fight of black Americans to be seen as equal, to have their rights as humans recognized, to attempt to work within the legal system to change an injustice and being swatted down sounded too familiar. Many of the reasons given to keep The Birth of a Nation in theaters and to write off its racism sounded too familiar. Responses to a Trotter-led protest outside the Tremont Theatre in April 1915 could be copied verbatim by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement and no one would know the difference. Sometimes history’s song is a sad one.

But we need to know the words.

Thank you for reading,

AR

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The Awakening – Kate Chopin

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

The Awakening, published in 1899, follows Edna Pontellier on a journey of self-discovery. The book is labeled by some as one of the first feminist works, with a healthy skewering of the upper class lifestyle of the late 19th century.

The main plot follows a summer romance between Edna and Robert Lebrun after they meet during a summer on the Gulf Coast. Edna enjoys Robert’s company and he serves as the catalyst to her seeking independence. Constant companions, the two of them spend hours, sometimes days, together. Their conversations, and Robert’s genuine interest in her, awaken a longing in Edna to be rid of her life as it is. Married for social status with children because it is the womanly duty. Edna feels trapped. Robert is her escape.

As Edna wrestles with her fear of breaking out of societal norms, Chopin uses the lovely metaphor of Edna learning to swim that summer to illustrate how free she feels as she embraces her “true self”. What was once terrifying and unknown is now joyous. Edna and Robert enjoy most of the remaining summer in each other’s company. However, with Edna a married woman Robert eventually leaves, saying he has business in Mexico. Edna, hurt, returns to New Orleans.

Once in the city Edna quickly tosses aside what society expects her to do: host weekly visits with friends, oversee the house and watch the children. Instead she walks the streets alone, goes to the race track to bet on horses and takes up sketching. Those around her believe she’s acting odd or ill, but Edna herself feels liberated.

Edna begins a fling (at least an 1899 version of a fling) with a suitor, Alcee Arobin, and throughout that courtship we see Edna address sexuality the first time. The underlying desire to break free that Robert stirred up grows during her time with Alcee until finally they kiss. A lustful kiss. It was interesting to read about a woman straying from her husband without the author adding shame or guilt. Chopin allows Edna to completely embrace her own individuality, her own “I will do as I please” mentality without apology. Edna does feel awkwardness after, but not regret. If anything it emboldens her.

Edna eventually moves out of her husband’s mansion into a small “pigeon-house” down the street, the “first house that ever felt cozy”. Chopin writes about a woman leaving her family to live alone without any condescension, and truly explores the psychological state of Edna as she essentially starts a new life for herself. She has moved past the social pressure of keeping a loveless marriage for status and the implied “job” of raising children. Chopin explores, realistically, what an independent woman would do in that time.

Robert returns to New Orleans, to Edna’s shock, and the two eventually meet one evening in the “pigeon-house”. There they confess their love for each other and Edna gives Robert her first passionate, loving kiss. With the truth finally laid bare, the two plan on spending all their time together. But not soon after Edna rushes to a friend giving birth, where she is reminded of her own children and what she would lose by abandoning them. She then returns to find a note from Robert saying he has left for good. Crushed, Edna returns to the Gulf where they first met and swims as far as she can before losing strength and drowning.

The end shocked me, but it seemed like Chopin admitting that while many women may have the aspirations to do what Edna does, society at the time would not allow it. Robert wouldn’t bring the shame of infidelity to Edna or her husband, and Edna couldn’t completely forget her maternal duty. And to drown, to die by the very thing that the previous summer had been so joyous, was especially poignant. You must be strong to fight a current of injustice, or inequity, or even bias. Perhaps too it served as a sort of foresight that while maybe women of Chopin’s generation could not easily do it, future generations of women could live as Edna did as easily as swimming.

A final, lighter note: this book taught me the word perambulation which I hope to use as often as possible.

Thank you for reading,

AR