Countering Birth of a Nation in Film

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In a previous piece on the subject of counterpropaganda, I examined how the early major American film, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915, hereafter “BOAN”) aroused opposition. While technically and artistically brilliant for its time, it was certainly propaganda. Its ideology was the Southern Historical Narrative, a deeply twisted version of history asserting that the Civil War destroyed an admirable form of life — the slave plantation system — and at the end of the war, the winning side imposed a brutal regime in which Southern whites were brutalized by blacks, until the whites organized a protective paramilitary force, the KKK, which heroically resisted black domination.

In pushing this myth, BOAN repeated the most vicious racial stereotypes in American history. It portrayed blacks as mentally inferior, lazy, ignorant, sexual predators. This rightly aroused black opposition and attempts to counter that propaganda. In the earlier essay I looked at the approach taken by William Monroe Trotter and the NAACP, which involved mass street demonstrations and efforts to ban the distribution of BOAN. The demonstrations were legitimate but not particularly effective, while the attempts to ban the film were not morally defensible and were a total failure.

Here I want to look at other attempts to refute the BOAN message, attempts relying on using the same medium by which it was spread: the motion picture. In other words, I want to look at attempts to counter propaganda film by producing film with a counter message.

At the outset, let me remind the reader that, unfortunately, most of the movies produced during the silent era have been lost. In some cases, we have scripts that give us a good idea of what the movie contained, but most often we don’t. So we don’t have the full picture.

But let us start by looking at two films made by a white director and screenwriter, John W. Noble (the professional name of Winfield Fernley Kutz, 1880–1946). Noble started in the film industry as an actor and assistant director. Ironically, in 1913, early in his career, he joined D.W. Griffith’s staff and became a director for the Mutual Film Corporation. He left the next year to work for the B.A. Rolfe Company for two years, and then for several other companies, including Biograph Studios, Universal Pictures, Metro Pictures, and Goldwyn Pictures. His filmography runs to over 30 pictures made between 1910 and 1927.[1]

Scott was well aware of the effect Birth of a Nation had on spreading hateful racist stereotypes. And he came up with an idea for a film to counter it.

 

Noble made two pictures aimed at countering BOAN: The Birth of a Race (1918) and After Dark (1923, originally titled The Hooded Mob). Both failed in this task, though for different reasons.

Let’s start with the earlier flick. It began in the mind of Emmett J. Scott (1873–1957). Scott started his career as a journalist for the white-owned Houston Post. He came to feel that the newspaper did not cover the black community well, so he cofounded The Texas Freeman to better serve his community, and became its editor. In his writing, he promoted Booker T. Washington and Washington’s fledgling Tuskegee Institute. Washington, impressed by his work, made Scott his secretary, top advisor, and publicity chief. Scott helped manage the college and developed a funding network of successful black businessmen and white philanthropists to support it — the “Tuskegee Machine.” Scott also founded the National Negro Business League. He served in various functions for Presidents Taft and Wilson.

Scott was well aware of the major effect BOAN had on spreading hateful racist stereotypes. And he came up with an idea for a film to counter BOAN to be called The Birth of a Race. His vision was of an epic film — epic like BOAN itself — covering the real history of blacks in America. As he describes it in his 1916 prospectus, “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.”

However, between Scott’s clear conception of a cinematic reply to BOAN and John Noble’s movie, something happened. It appears that about half of the movie was shot according to Scott’s plan, and then dumped. By the time the movie appeared two years later, it was transformed. The Birth of a Race became the birth of the human race.

The version that has survived (readily available on YouTube) opens with the intertitle: “To you who love your fellow men; who desire Peace upon Earth; the story of the birth of our glorious race is dedicated — for it is only through Love that we can reach the heart of mankind or the feet of God.” The movie then portrays the creation of the Earth, the Adam and Eve story, the story of Noah and the flood, the story of Moses and the Exodus, and then the story of Christ and his crucifixion. (Simon of Cyrene, the man who bore Christ’s cross when he faltered, is played by a black actor — the first clearly noticeable appearance of a black person in the film, and it occurs fully two-thirds of the way through.)

However, it appears that about half of the movie was shot according to Scott’s plan, and then dumped.

 

We then jump forward 14 centuries to Columbus and the discovery of the New World. We jump again to the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Constitution — which an intertitle describes as the first time in history when people adopted equality as a principle of law. We move to Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation — “which forged the last link in the chain of human equality” — and Lincoln’s assassination.

The last ten minutes of the film is devoted to World War I. About six minutes before the film’s end, we see two men working in a field. They come around side by side, one a black and the other a white, and we cut to see then side by side in the same Army uniforms, marching off to the war. After scenes of battle, the film ends with the troops marching after the Armistice.

The Wikipedia description of the movie says that there is a subplot in which two brothers in a German-American family fight on opposite sides in the war, with the son who fights for America killing his brother, returning to America, and rescuing his wife from a German spy — but this material is missing from the version available on YouTube.

Now, aside from showing Simon the Cyrene as a black man, and the portrayal of the black and the white farmers becoming soldiers together, there is nothing in the film that refers to blacks and their history. The only part that touches on slavery is the Exodus story — where the slaves of course were the Jewish people. Why Emmett Scott’s original vision and the film based on it were dumped from the film is a matter of conjecture. R.H. Greene, film scholar, quoted a 1918 Variety review of the film that suggests racism was the main reason for bowdlerizing the movie: “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 . . . A large quantity of film, depicting certain phases of the advancement of the Negro race, was dropped.”

I would add a possible economic explanation. The Selig Company was formed in 1896 in Chicago. In 1908, it opened studio facilities in Los Angeles (in the Edendale district). But by WWI, the company was struggling financially. In 1917, it sold its Edendale property to the Fox Company and downsized. In 1918 — the year Birth of a Race was released — the Selig Company went out of business.

Scott’s original vision, if realized in film, would have been a powerful piece of counterpropaganda to BOAN, indeed. The lesson is clear. If someone wants to make a film strongly advocating a cause, he should if possible not farm the project out to others, but should try to control the production of the film himself. It is surprising that Scott — not merely a follower of Booker T. Washington, but Washington’s top advisor — failed to grasp that point.

In 1922, Noble tried again to critically examine the KKK. He directed The Hooded Mob. The movie, which “pans the entire Klan,” was released in New York in 1923, but the censor board banned it from being shown. The board took issue with the theme of the film, in which (apparently) an innocent man is persecuted because “he is of another faith.”[2] Despite the fact that Noble changed the ending to showing that the whole story was a dream, the film was never shown publicly and is now on a list of lost silent era films.

The lesson is clear. If someone wants to make a film strongly advocating a cause, he should if possible not farm the project out to others, but should try to control the production of the film himself.

 

The lesson in this case is also clear. Seeking to ban films is a tactic that can be used both sides. Trotter and the NAACP unsuccessfully sought to ban BOAN on the alleged grounds that it could encourage KKK supporters to engage in violence. But censors banned this anti-KKK movie because it too could incite violence by Klansmen.

Another film critical of the Klan produced at this time suffered the same fate. In 1922, a Catholic-owned production company, Crestor Feature Pictures, set out to combat the Klan as a “force of evil” that aimed at destroying America’s freedom of religion. The New York censor barred the distribution of the film, on the ground that it made accusations against “members of the KKK and their children” that could lead to violence. Despite the fact that the filmmakers removed some of the more provocative scenes and lines (such as “it is up to us [i.e., the KKK] to do something before the Jews and the Catholics run the Earth”), the movie (renamed The Mask of the Ku Klux Klan) was again banned by the New York state censor the next year. The film is now also on the list of lost silent era movies.

The most successful counter to BOAN came from the first major black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. A brief biography of this remarkable man is in order.

Micheaux was born on an Illinois farm in 1884. His father was an ex-slave whose owners were likely of French descent. Micheaux’s parents moved to the city so that their children could get a better education. But while Micheaux was able to attend a good school for a few years, the family fell on hard times. As a result, Micheaux began to clash with his father, and Micheaux soon moved out on his own. When he was 17, he moved to Chicago to live with his brother.

After working in various jobs, Micheaux moved to South Dakota, where he bought land. He homesteaded the land and got married. But this worked out badly. When he was away on business, his wife left with their baby, taking their savings with her. And her father sold the land and kept the money. Micheaux was unable to get his child and property back, so he moved on. He married again in 1926, and this time well — he lived with his second wife Alice until he died in 1951.

Censors banned this anti-KKK movie because it too could incite violence by Klansmen.

 

Micheaux started his career as a writer and filmmaker in 1913. He published his first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer anonymously, and it was a modest success. It was basically an autobiographical work. In 1918 he adapted the novel to film under the new name The Homestead (released in 1919), and it was successful critically and financially. The film dealt with race relationships. In 1920, he released his second movie Within Our Gates, widely viewed as a direct response to BOAN, although Micheaux suggested that it was prompted by the social upheaval following WWI. The film was banned briefly by the New York board of censors. His successor film, The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (1920) attacked the KKK directly. This also is best viewed as a reply to BOAN.

Micheaux kept making and distributing movies until 1948, just three years before his death. He produced more than 45 films, which were widely viewed on the “ghetto circuit” of 700 theaters serving black communities across the nation. He made films in most of the white Hollywood genres (mysteries, gangster films, and so on), and, like D.W. Griffith, John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille, developed his own “stable” of actors — which included Bee Freeman, Ethel Moses, Evelyn Preer, and Lorenzo Tucker. He was the filmmaker who introduced Paul Robeson to the screen, in Body and Soul (1925). He was the first black filmmaker to do a full-length movie, The Homesteader (1919), and to do a sound film, The Exile (1931). His final movie — Betrayal (1948) — was the first black-produced film to open in white theaters. In addition, Micheaux published seven books during the years 1913 to 1947.

Micheaux’s films tended to be technically challenged — poor lighting and editing, consistency problems, and (after 1931) poor sound quality. This was in part attributable to his low budgets. He often did promotional tours, delivering copies of his movies to theaters in person, and then using the occasion to drum up financial support for future flicks.

But his films were sophisticated in their content. They dealt with the most important issues facing blacks of his time: relationships with whites, the attempt to become successful in a predominantly white society, and racial injustice in its many forms — economic exploitation, job discrimination, interracial romance, issues of skin tone, rape, mob violence, and lynching.

While his films were directed at battling the racist stereotypes of blacks, he created characters — both black and white — with complex personalities. He did not succumb to the temptation to paint all whites as vicious perps and all blacks as virtuous victims. As he put it, “I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not.”

Let’s review Within Our Gates. The Library of Congress version is readily available on YouTube. The film opens with an intertitle noting that it was preserved in 1993 from a lone surviving print found in Spain (under the title La Negra). This nitrate film was copied to safety film and acquired by the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute. Another intertitle tells us that Micheaux’s original intertitles were not available, so they had to be translated back into English, using Micheaux’s novel published in this period (1913–1917) and the only silent film that survived with his original intertitles (Body and Soul, 1925)).

The movie starts by announcing that it stars “the renowned Negro artist Evelyn Preer, and was written, directed, and produced by Oscar Micheaux.” The story is introduced by a sarcastic intertitle, “At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist — though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.”

Micheaux created characters — both black and white — with complex personalities. He did not paint all whites as vicious perps and all blacks as virtuous victims.

 

We open to a scene in which the main character, Sylvia Landry — “a schoolteacher from the South visiting her northern cousin Alma [who] is typical of the intelligent Negro of our times” — sits down with her cousin Alma. Sylvia reads a letter from her boyfriend Conrad, living in Canada, telling her that he is overjoyed to hear that she has agreed to marry him, that he is being transferred to Brazil but will do everything he can to ensure that they can be married by the end of the month. Another intertitle tells us that Alma is also (secretly) in love with Conrad, and wants to marry him.

Soon we meet Larry Prichard, Alma’s brother-in-law, another person who wants to win Sylvia’s heart. Larry takes Sylvia’s hand, obviously expressing attraction to her. But she tells him she doesn’t love him and is engaged to another man. It takes us little time to learn that Larry is a notorious criminal, being tailed by a detective. Meanwhile, Alma receives a telegram addressed to Sylvia, opens it, and learns that Conrad will arrive that Thursday at 8 p.m. Alma doesn’t mention this to Sylvia. That evening, we see Larry join a poker game with some others, including Red, a professional gambler. The game is rigged, and when another man notices the Red is cheating, the lights go out and Larry shoots Red. He returns to Alma’s place.

Next, an intertitle tells us that Conrad has arrived in the city. Alma greets him at the door and talks with him. But he soon gets anxious — where is Sylvia? Alma takes him to Sylvia’s room, and when he looks in, he sees her with another man. (We learn later that Alma arranged this compromising situation). Conrad becomes enraged with jealousy and betrayal. When Sylvia finds out that he is there and comes out to speak with him, he begins to choke her. Alma immediately stops him. However, without listening to Sylvia’s explanation, Conrad leaves for Brazil. Hurt and disappointed, Sylvia subsequently leaves for the South. (Micheaux’s editing here was not particularly satisfying.)

We cut to the town of Piney Woods — “in the depths of the South, where ignorance and the lynch law reign supreme” — and a “school for Negroes” run by Reverend Wilson Jacobs — “an apostle of education for the black race.” He runs the school with the sole help of his sister Constance. It has more students than it can handle and is on the verge of closing. Sylvia meets Constance and learns from her that the local black farmers are far too poor to pay but are desperate for their children to be educated. The state only pays $1.49 per child per year for the education of black kids. After a sleepless night spent thinking about “the eternal struggle of her race and of how she could uplift it,” Sylvia meets with the Reverend and tells him that she will go back up North and raise the funds needed ($5,000).

We cut to Boston and meet Dr. Vivian — a black professional who is “passionately engaged in social questions.” Outside, Sylvia is walking along the street when a crook snatcher steals her purse. Seeing this, Dr. Vivian runs out and stops the man. He and Sylvia then sit in his office and talk. We then meet Mrs. Stratton, a rich white Southern woman who is deeply racist. We watch her read an article advocating the idea that blacks should be stripped of the right to vote, and nod approvingly. Film scholar Ronald J. Green points out that the actress who plays Stratton, Bernice Ladd, looks like the lead actress in BOAN, Lillian Gish, and suggests that is why Micheaux chose her for the role.

She makes a few other racist comments about blacks, concluding that it would be silly to waste $5,000 on a black school.

 

After a week, Sylvia has not been able to meet with any of the city’s rich people. She is sitting forlornly on a bench when she sees a child walk in front of a car. Sylvia of course runs out and rescues the child, but she is herself struck by the car, which is driven by an elderly white woman, Mrs. Elena Warwick. Warwick drives Sylvia to the hospital, they become acquainted, and Warwick tells her she is interested “in the cause of your race” and will find the means to help the school. We cut to Dr. Vivian, who is reminiscing about his time with Sylvia. It is clear they are falling in love.

Warwick then meets with Stratton, and asks her as a Southerner to tell her what is the best way to help the school. Stratton replies, “Lumber-jacks and field hands. Let me tell you — it is an error to try and educate then.” She makes a few other racist comments about blacks, concluding that it would be silly to waste $5,000 on a black school. Warwick should give $100 to an old black preacher (“Old Ned”) who will keep blacks “in their place.”

As a sample of Old Ned’s theology, we view a scene of him telling his flock that whites “with all their schooling, all their wealth” will go to Hell, whereas blacks, “lacking these vices” — as if being well-educated and gainfully employed were vices — will go to heaven. Later, talking with some white men, Old Ned says that blacks need to know their place because this is “a land for the white man.” The whites reward him with a couple of dollars — and a boot to his rear. As he leaves, the preacher says, “White folks is mighty fine!” We can see why Mrs. Stratton likes the man. But outside their hearing, he says to himself that he is doomed to hell. Old Ned is Micheaux’s take on the stock “Uncle Tom” figure common in white films: they are pathetic, self-loathing sellouts.

Warwick appears to be persuaded by Stratton’s ideas, but after meeting with Sylvia again, she changes her mind. She meets Stratton again and tells her that she is going to give the school $50,000. Stratton, shocked, leaves in a huff.

When Sylvia returns to the Piney Woods School, she has secured more than enough money to keep it going. And Reverend Jacobs is more than grateful — he asks Sylvia to marry him. But she is now totally in love with Dr. Vivian, and rejects the Reverend’s offer.

We cut to Larry, who moved south to Vicksburg to escape police scouting. Setting in a room, he is joined by another crook, and Larry shows him some counterfeit jewelry. The man suggests they go to the turpentine plant near Piney Woods School the Saturday after payday to peddle their merchandise to the ignorant black workers. The plots are starting to come together. When Larry goes to the school, he runs into Sylvia and starts coming by every Saturday to visit her. But she soon tells him that she is happy working for “our people” at the school, and it is no place “for a person like yourself.” She asks him not to return. In response, he demands that she steal from the school and give him the money, or he’ll tell the school “just what sort of person you are.” She calls him a miserable liar, which of course he is. But that night, Sylvia flees to the North. Dr. Vivian soon hears that she is back in Boston, and begins looking for her.

Larry also goes North, to his stepsister Alma’s house. She warns him that he is being watched by the detective, but he returns to his occupation as a thief. When he tries breaking into a safe, the detective catches him in the act, and they shoot it out. Larry is fatally wounded.

The flashback cuts to the manor house of the wealthy white aristocrat Philip Gridlestone, who has been routinely cheating his illiterate tenant farmers by lying to them about what they have paid and what debts they have incurred.

 

Called by chance to treat Larry’s wounds, Dr. Vivian meets a repentant Alma, who tells him “an extraordinary tale” — namely, Sylvia’s life story. First, she confesses to breaking up Sylvia’s engagement to Conrad. Then, in an extended flashback, we learn that when she was a child, Sylvia had been adopted and raised by the Landry family, who were poor black tenant farmers. Like the vast majority of poor blacks, they lacked education and the vote, and only wanted “a home for their families, a few acres of land, a church to attend, and an education for their children.” They had sent Sylvia to school. We see Sylvia sitting at a table with Jasper Landry and his wife. Sylvia has been doing basic accounting for the illiterate Landry couple, and she tells Mr. Landry that he and his son have earned $625 over and above what they owed Gridlestone in rent and fees. This will be enough to pay off all their debts, let her return to school, and even take their young son Emil with her.

The flashback cuts to the manor house of the wealthy white aristocrat Philip Gridlestone, who is a “modern Nero” feared by blacks and hated by whites. He has obviously been routinely cheating his illiterate tenant farmers by lying to them about what they have paid and what debts they have incurred. Efrem, his black servant — another “Uncle Tom” parody — is an incorrigible gossip, and tells Gridlestone that the educated Sylvia won’t let Gridlestone get away with cheating Landry, because she is recording all payments made on paper. This enrages Gridlestone. When Mr. Landry shows up the next day to pay Gridlestone his rent, Gridlestone reminds him that “the white man makes the law in this country.”

While Gridlestone is speaking, we see a poor white farmer skulking outside the window, and we’re told that he, too, was cheated by Gridlestone and called “poor, white trash — no better than a Negro.” The white farmer is holding a rifle. As Gridlestone continues to berate poor Mr. Landry, Efrem looks on and laughs. Gridlestone picks up a revolver and threatens Landry; the white farmer shoots Gridlestone and runs off. What Efrem sees is Gridlestone collapsing while Landry has the pistol, not the white man committing the deed. Efrem spreads the news to the white townspeople that Landry killed Gridlestone.

The Landry couple flee their cabin with Emil and Sylvia, but a mob of whites pursues the wrongly accused Landry. The search goes on for a week. Some of the white farmers see a man sneaking through the bushes and shoot him — only to find that they killed the white farmer who (unbeknownst to them) actually killed Gridlestone — “divine justice,” according to an intertitle. The same justice is done to Efrem, who believes he has won favor with the whites. The frustrated mob lynches him. Armand Gridlestone, Philip’s brother, now arrives and joins the hunt. The mob catches the Landry family. Their young son escapes, but Mr. and Mrs. Landry are summarily lynched, and their bodies burned.

What of Sylvia? She has been hidden by relatives but is discovered alone by Armand, who attempts to rape her. She is saved by a scar on her chest. Armand recognizes it and realizes that she is his legitimate daughter from a marriage to a black woman. He had let the Landry couple adopt her but paid for her education, ever revealing to her that she was his child.

The flashback, packed with melodramatic action, ends at last with Dr. Vivian finding Sylvia. After giving her a talk about being proud of her country and her heritage, and noting that “we [black people] were never immigrants,” he professes his love for her and they get married.

A few points are worth making about the film.

Start with the complexity of the story. Despite limited funds, Micheaux was able to produce a feature-length film with a story within the story. And the action flows fairly well, despite the fact that Micheaux did not have enough money even to reshoot his scenes, and had to borrow props and costumes. The characters — both black and white — are varied. That is, while some whites — Philip Gridlestone, the murderous white farmer, the racist Mrs. Stratton — are bad, some — Mrs. Warwick — are very good; and while some blacks — Efrem, Larry, Red — are bad, some — Sylvia, Dr. Vivian, Jasper Landry — are very good. Some black characters — Alma, Conrad — are shown as basically good people with flaws.

But more to our purpose, we can see why the film has rightly been regarded as a reply to BOAN, countering most of its racist tropes.

Within Our Gates directly counters two particular tropes that are leitmotifs of Birth of a Nation: blacks as incorrigibly ignorant and black men as sexually predatory toward white women.

 

For example, BOAN presents blacks as generally inferior in intellect. Within Our Gates shows many of the lead characters in professional jobs — as doctors, nurses, teachers, ministers, businessmen, police officers, detectives and so on. Again, BOAN presents blacks as frequently lazy. But in Within Our Gates, most of the black characters — especially the tenant farmers — are hard-working and thrifty.

More fundamentally, Within Our Gates directly counters two particular tropes that are leitmotifs of BOAN: blacks as incorrigibly ignorant and black men as sexually predatory toward white women. Regarding the blacks-as-ignorant leitmotif, the central plot line of Within Our Gates is the attempt by the lead characters — Sylvia, Dr. Vivian, Rev. Jacobs, Constance, Mrs. Warwick — to help poor black parents deeply desiring an education for their children. This is against white opposition, exemplified by Mrs. Stratton and the state that gives a meager $1.49 to educate a black child. Within Our Gates was made over 30 years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which finally brought segregation in public education to an end. During this era, the reality was — as blacks only too well understood — that “separate but equal” treatment for blacks always and everywhere meant grossly inferior treatment for them.

Regarding the notion of black men targeting white women, the only black men in the movie who show any interest in women are all interested in Sylvia. The only sexual predator in the film is Armand Gridlestone, who tries to rape a black girl, before finding out that she is his daughter.

I daresay that Micheaux meant the attempted rape scene to remind black audiences that for two centuries in America, many white men owned numerous women slaves, so the number of black women who were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted must have been astronomically high. And to the obvious sexual motives we should add a financial one: under Virginia law at least, the children of a slave were slaves and were owned by the parent slave’s owner. BOAN, of course, never mentions any of this.

Micheaux’s film was released in 1919, a year during which there were 25 race riots across the country. The bloodiest was the Chicago race riot in late July to early August. Thirty-eight people died — 23 black, 15 white — and 537 were injured — about two-thirds black, one-third white.

The causes of racial unrest in this period were numerous. There was the “Great Migration” of blacks from South to North, spurred by better job opportunities up North and continued racial oppression down South. An indication of this oppression was lynching: the KKK — which BOAN helped to resurrect and support — lynched 64 people in 1918 and 83 people in 1919. There was intense competition for jobs between working-class blacks and whites; and intense competition for housing between recent immigrants and incoming Southern blacks, with the black population of Chicago going from 44,000 in 1910 to over 109,000 in 1920. And black veterans of WWI were more insistent on being given their rights as citizens. Add to this a postwar economic slump, and the result was a nationwide racial tinderbox.

So when Micheaux applied to the Chicago Board of Censors to distribute Within Our Gates in December 1919, it was no surprise that the board took two months to give permission. Critics were afraid that the film’s scenes of lynching and keeping black children from getting an education would reignite riots. The movie was finally released in January 1920, with, apparently, some scenes cut. But it attracted large audiences.

The KKK — which Birth of a Nation helped to resurrect and support — lynched 64 people in 1918 and 83 people in 1919.

 

In 1920, Micheaux released a second movie that countered BOAN, The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan. Since about a third of the movie — about 32 minutes out of a 90-minute film — is missing from the only remaining print, and that missing material most likely contained the most crucial scenes, I will just briefly sketch the plot. (The truncated version of the film is on YouTube.)

Eve Mason is a young, light-skinned African-American who inherits a large plot of land with a small cabin from her grandfather Dick Mason, who had been a prospector. The movie opens with Eve trying to rent a room for the night from the nearby Driscoll Hotel. But the owner, Jefferson Driscoll — a light-skinned African-American who hates blacks, even his own mother — forces Eve to stay in the barn. Frightened by the presence of another black visitor Driscoll had forced to sleep in the barn, Eve flees into the woods.

In the morning, she runs into the second main character, Hugh Van Allen, an African-American prospector. He takes her to the small cabin on her land. They immediately bond in friendship, and Hugh gives her a gun to fire in case anything frightens her in the night. He lives in a tent on his land, which is adjacent to hers.

We soon get to the key plot turn. Driscoll finds a letter accidentally dropped by a postal worker. It reveals that Van Allen’s land has oil beneath it and is extremely valuable. Driscoll and his crooked associates enlist the help of the local Klan and leave threatening notes on Hugh’s tent, warning his to sell his land and move away. But he refuses — even though he is still unaware of the value of his land.

At this point, the Klan mob forms and attacks Hugh. But Hugh has the support of other blacks in the community, and they are able to defeat the mob. This battle is on the lost film, so the details are unknown. Afterward, Hugh learns that his land is valuable. Two years pass, and we see that he has become a wealthy oil baron. He has resisted asking Eve to marry him, because he thinks she is white and would therefore not consider it. But the film ends with her showing him a letter from “the Committee for the Defense of the Colored Race” that shows that she, though white in color, is in fact African-American. Learning this, Hugh declares his love for her, and she responds in kind.

Now, even with the fragments of the film that remain, we can see how it served as a rebuttal to BOAN. Far from being sexually predatory to white women, the main male characters Hugh proposes to Eve only after he knows that she is African-American. And while Driscoll is shown at the opening of the film as wooing a white woman, he is presented as vile. When his mother inadvertently interrupts his tete-a-tete with the woman, and she leaves in shock and dismay, an enraged Driscoll violently attacks his mother by strangling her and throwing her to the ground. But even this twisted, self-loathing man nowhere tries to rape anyone.

More importantly, the KKK is not shown as “protecting” white people in general or white women in particular. After all, no white people are threatened in any way, sexually or otherwise. No, the KKK functions as the “soldiers” in a mobster crime family. It is employed to criminally assault an innocent black man to deprive him of what is his rightful property. This is a powerful critique: the KKK is a criminal gang aimed at stealing and extorting from black folk.

Let us contrast two different tactical approaches to the Civil Rights struggle: the Washingtonian versus the Du Boisean approaches. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. After the Civil War, he worked as a miner and as a domestic servant before attending the Hampton Institute, one of the earliest black colleges in America. After graduating, he started his career as a teacher. In 1881he became the head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The focus of such early black colleges was on giving youth the practical skills needed to succeed in the rapidly industrializing American economy. They were the vocational or what we would now call the vocational-technical colleges of the day serving blacks.

This is a powerful critique: the KKK is a criminal gang aimed at stealing and extorting from black folk.

 

But more controversially, in a major speech delivered in 1895 in Atlanta — the “Atlanta Compromise” speech — Washington argued that blacks should focus on educating themselves and prospering in business before focusing on the struggle for political power. He certainly did not oppose the struggle for civil rights, but he felt that at that point in the history of black Americans, economic power was needed more than political power, and economic power requires education and training. As he puts it in that speech, “It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours [those of black Americans], but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges.”

To this approach, W.E.B. Du Bois strongly objected. Du Bois was born in 1868 (hence born free) to a middle-class black family in an integrated neighborhood. He was an excellent student in high school, becoming the valedictorian of his class. He first encountered racial bigotry when he attended Fisk College in Tennessee. This was 1885, the height of the Jim Crow South. Du Bois returned north to complete his education at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1895 — the year Washington delivered the Atlanta Compromise speech. Du Bois was the first black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, and his dissertation on the American slave trade was highly regarded for its scholarship.

Remember that just as Washington and Du Bois were beginning to articulate their disagreements, in 1896 the Supreme Court (in Plessy v. Ferguson) held that racial segregation was legal — the deceitfully named doctrine of “separate but equal.”

During the first decade of the 20th century, Washington and Du Bois were the two most influential black leaders, and their ideologies clashed. Washington favored a more inclusive, conciliatory, free market approach to civil rights struggle; Du Bois favored a more activist approach of political organization, demonstrations, and agitation. Du Bois also inclined to socialism. The two published their views in a series of articles, where the ideological rift widened. In 1903 Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. In this book he laid out his approach to the issue and openly criticized Washington. In 1905, Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and other younger civil rights leaders formed the group Niagara, which later dissolved. Du Bois and some of those other leaders then formed the NAACP in 1909.

This ideological struggle was taking place as Micheaux grew into adulthood. He grew up poor, did not get to go to college, and went into business at a young age, so it is no surprise he was more Washingtonian in his views. And that ideological perspective clearly informs his films. The protagonists are committed to improving the condition of blacks by increasing educational opportunities and entrepreneurship. I would argue that Micheaux’s own entrepreneurship enabled him to produce effective counterpropaganda to BOAN. He wrote, produced, and directed his work. So he could put forward exactly the message he wanted to.

But to end on a Du Boisean note: however effective as counterpropaganda Micheaux’s films were in content, they were blunted in their effect on the public’s perceptions. He was producing his films during the period (1915–1952) in which, by Supreme Court decree, films were not protected by the First Amendment. This means that government at all levels could force a studio to alter or cut the content of any movie at will, or even ban the movie entirely. As we have seen, while the NAACP, Trotter, Du Bois and others tried to get Birth of a Nation banned or at least significantly altered, they generally failed. However, the most overt anti-KKK movies were banned or neutered. So while Within Our Gates is a powerful indictment of the lynching of blacks and their educational stultification, it was held up in distribution for months and forced to be altered. Apparently not all audiences watched the full work.

Because of legal segregation, white folks — the people who most needed to see Micheux’s counterpropaganda to Birth of a Nation — didn’t have a chance to do so.

 

Indeed, the NAACP et. al. should have guessed how censorship would work in a “separate but equal” America. In the pamphlet D. W. Griffith wrote to protest the attempts to ban BOAN, he quotes from an editorial in the Houston Chronicle that objected to the effort to censor his movie: “The time has not come when the people of Houston are to have their standards of thought or taste set or fixed or regulated by the negro citizenship . . .” This is “separate but equal” censorship: BOAN was not banned, even if it helped resurrect the KKK, which engaged in attacks upon and lynching of blacks, but movies that criticized the KKK directly were banned, on the ground that they might incite violence by blacks or the KKK.

More problematically for the impact of Micheaux’s films, he lived during the reign of legal segregation (1896–1954). This meant that for most of his productive years, his movies were shown only in the 700 theaters that formed the “ghetto circuit” in predominantly black communities. Thus white folks — the people who most needed to see the counterpropaganda to BOAN — didn’t have a chance to do so.

It was only in 1948 that Micheaux had the chance to distribute his films to the wider population. But by then, the KKK had died out.

 

NOTES

[1] Noble is also credited with work on the 1933 film Reckless Decision.

[2] Tom Rice, White Robes, Silver Screens: Movies and the Making of the Ku Klux Klan (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018) 163.

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