In times where we might have to take to the streets on a moment’s notice, it might be helpful to study previous movements. On Monday night (January 30) at 7 p.m., the Somerville Theatre will be doing just that by screening a new PBS documentary called Birth of a Movement: the Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster, and from all appearances, it’ll be well worth the time to view it.
Based on a book by Boston University professor and Black Mass author Dick Lehr, the film sheds light on the Boston-based newspaper editor and activist William M. Trotter and his 1915 efforts to ban D. W. Griffith’s KKK hagiography The Birth of a Nation, right when that film was poised to become one of young Hollywood’s first blockbuster hits.
Nationwide protests were launched to try and combat the movie’s release or, at least, its receipts, and the newly-formed NAACP found some of its identity in its opposition to the film. The sickening effects of its influence could be felt after Birth, as Klan membership jumped after its release. The stain has never been truly wiped away, as the technical qualities of Griffith’s work has kept it a constant presence in the film school curriculum.
Trotter remains an undervalued figure in our discourse about civil rights and the media in America, and perhaps film courses would be improved a little bit if they focused less on Griffith’s achievements and more on the amazing response to them. Birth of a Movement features commentary by Spike Lee, Robert Hudlin, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. amongst others, and also sports a DJ Spooky score. Spooky himself “remixed” Birth of a Nation some years ago, and his version is well worth a watch as well.
The film will be followed by a panel discussion, and the event is free of charge. For those who can’t make it out to the Somerville on Monday, Birth of a Movement will premiere on WGBH the following week on February 6 at 10 p.m.