What a shocking film (or shocking fragment of a film) this is!
Shocking for what it is very definitely not(a "race film" produced in response to D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation) and shocking for what it is (a war-propaganda film intended, amongst other things, to recruit African Americans to serve in the army of a nation that still refused to grant them the most basic civil rights).
It is shocking because the original notion for such a film, first floated by Booker T. Washington's NAACP, had indeed been to respond to Griffith's racist epic The original idea was to make a modest film entitled Lincoln's Dream, produced entirely by African Americans, that would give the lie to Griffith's nonsense and to the rhetoric of the newly-revived Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP approached Universal but, meeting with no response, put the idea in the hands of Emmett J. Scott, who had been Washington's right-hand man at the Tuskegee Institute.
Reel back a few years to 1910, the year when Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world decisively defeated "the great white hope" Jim Jeffries. And to 1913, the year when Caribbean American comic Bert Williams made a film for Biograph with an all-black cast. The film entitled Lime Kiln Field Day or Lime Kiln Club Field Day was feature-length (even unfinished the surviving film is an hour long)and, if completed and released, would have meant that a film with an all-black film was amongst the first feature-length films made in the US (and evidently earlier than the Griffith epic).
See my note on that film for how the boxer Jeffries found himself arrested on trumped-up sex-charges (in 1912) and on how Lime Kiln Field day, although virtually complete, was abandoned for reasons that remain mysterious but can all too easily be guessed at.
The way was clear for the Griffith's Birth of a Nation which appeared in 1915. Despite its huge popularity and despite the massive upsurge in racist feeling that followed it, nothing could entirely turn the clock back in the way those nostalgic for the good old days of slavery might have hoped. Sam Lucas, an actor who had worked with Williams on Lime Kiln Field Day and who had already played the part of Uncle Tom on stage (the first African American to do so) was given the part in Universal's film-version of the Beecher Stowe novel that appeared in 1914. To fulfil what was presuably a broken contract with Williams, Biograph allowed him to produce, direct and star in three short films with largely all-black casts in 1916 (Natural Born Gambler, Fish, which survive, and Darktown Jubilee, now lost). All were based on established vaudeville routines but rely heavily on racial caricature and are not nearly as good as the 1913 Lime Kiln Field Day.
Jack Johnson remained heavyweight champion of the world and in 1913 defended his title in the first ever all-black contest against Battling Jim Johnson, a contest which was not filmed although films continued to be made of attempts to defeat him by a succession of further white hopes until in 1919 he was finally knocked out by "cowboy" giant Jess Willard.
In 1916, the brothers Noble and George Johnson founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which produced six feature-length films between 1916 and 1923, none of which sadly appear to survive.
To return to 1918 and Emmett J. Scott and we find a man with a dilemma. A follower of Booker T. Washington, an educator with a lifetime of working for the cause of his fellow-African Americans, Scott had achieved a rare eminence for a man of colour in being appointed Special Assistant for Negro Affairs to the Secretary of War by the incoming President, Woodrow Wilson. His - to recruit African Americans to the war effort.
As a result, the film originally supposed to be a response to Griffith, now envisaged as a major full-length film or epic proportions (not by an manner of means a low-budget film) and renamed The Birth of a Race (misleadingly increasing the false impression that it was a response to Griffith), was entirely placed in the hands of white film-makers, most of whom were already involved with producing war-propaganda. Scott's own involvement was nominal and no other African American was involved in any way with the production nor is there a single African American in the credited cast.
The recruitment of black soldiers was a very minor aspect of the film, whose intention seems mainly to have been to keep anger at boiling-point against Germany (Ralph Dean who plays the Kaiser was one of several specialists in the role) while defusing prejudice against German Americans. The main plot (not present in the ten-minute fragment) concerns a German American family (two brothers who end up fighting on different sides). To judge from the cast-list, a sub-plot also concerned an Irish American family. Considerable care was taken to choose actors of German or Irish stock; Mary Carr, for instance, famous for playing "mothers" and whose maiden name was Kennavan, features as "Mrs O'Brien). So it is a film that concerns itself greatly with the representation of minorities all except the largest minority of all - the African Americans!
Far from being a response to Griffith, the rather vague religiose sentiments expressed with regard to equality and tolerance resemble quite closely those in D. W. Griffith's own 1916 film Intolerance, there are decidedly racist images of tribal peoples and even instances of white characters blacked up (as villains of course) while the original music for the film was by the same composer who produced the music for The Birth of a Nation.
One has to wait until 1920 and Oscar Micheaux' Within Our Gates before there is a genuine response to the Griffith film.
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