Ideas

IDEAS | DICK LEHR

When ‘Birth of a Nation’ sparked a riot in Boston

Nate Parker as "Nat Turner" in the 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by Nate Parker.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in the 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by Nate Parker.

In his directorial debut dramatizing the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, Nate Parker has grabbed for his own film the title of D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic “The Birth of a Nation” from a century ago. It’s Parker’s way to call out the legendary Griffith’s smash hit, a racist-driven re-telling of the Civil War and Reconstruction. “I’ve reclaimed this title and repurposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America,” Parker told Filmmaker magazine earlier this year. In doing so, Parker joins a long line of black filmmakers — think Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee, and Ava DuVernay — whose works are a counterpoint to Griffith.

That’s a good thing. Griffith’s film has cast a long, nasty shadow since it proved a runaway success in 1915. It may showcase Griffith’s filmmaking prowess in bringing to life the War Between the States. But there’s a problem — a huge one — in the Kentucky-born director’s take: his romanticizing of the antebellum South, his racist portrayal of former slaves as unfit and undeserving of voting rights, and his casting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes during Reconstruction who rode to the rescue and restored order to the lawlessness brought on by emancipated slaves.

Griffith’s film became the country’s first blockbuster as well as a cornerstone in the founding of Hollywood. Everywhere it was shown, white audiences cheered, while blacks and their supporters were horrified. Over the years, the director’s artistry has fueled its staying power — the movie is often the starting point in the study of American feature film. But less well known is the dissent against it right from the get-go — a protest tradition to which Parker’s project can be linked as the latest iteration. And on that front, Boston stands out as the key battleground, where the confrontation was fiercest and played out for months.

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Leading the way was William Monroe Trotter, a prominent civil rights leader and radical newspaper editor who, in the early 1900s, was as well known as other, more widely recognized leaders from that time, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells. Trotter, who grew up in Hyde Park, was Harvard’s first black member of Phi Beta Kappa, class of 1895. He founded his newspaper, The Guardian, to challenge Booker T. Washington’s control of the national civil rights conversation and to promote his view that a more in-your-face, direct-action approach should replace Washington’s failed policy of accommodation.

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Griffith’s film opened in Los Angeles to rave reviews in February 1915. In a marketing coup that same month, he showed it privately to President Woodrow Wilson and others — the first movie ever screened inside the White House. In March, the film moved to New York City, and, by early April, Griffith was bound for Boston for its premier at the Tremont Theater, across from Boston Common, on Saturday, April 10, 1915.

All along the way, blacks and supporters had voiced their opposition. The new NAACP, founded in 1909 and struggling to find traction, was scrambling to ban it, through local censorship boards prevalent in those years. Leaving New York City, Griffith and his team braced for battle, fully aware of Trotter’s radicalism and Boston’s abolitionist history. They felt that, if they could get through Boston, they could play the film anywhere.

Trotter, teaming up with the NAACP’s Boston branch, the organization’s largest local branch, did not disappoint. They engaged in a titanic clash against Griffith, opposing the movie throughout the spring of 1915 — employing multiple strategies on multiple fronts at City Hall, in Superior Court, at the State House, and in the streets.

In one confrontation, Trotter and hundreds of followers plotted a Saturday night march to the theater, a plan that was leaked to police and the press. The anonymous caller to the news desk at the Globe urged that reporters hustle down to the Tremont. “There might be something interesting happening.” Boston police officials, meanwhile, put more than a hundred officers on standby, ready for action. When Trotter stormed the box office to protest the theater’s refusal to sell tickets to blacks, police rushed in, a melee broke out, and Trotter was wrestled into custody, along with 10 others. The headline in the next day’s Boston Post read, “Army of Police Nip Theatre Riot in Bud.’’ The story appeared in papers across the nation.

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By June, Trotter and NAACP leaders had staged some 18 mass rallies, involving between 500 and 2,500 protesters at each, or many thousands of agitators in total, often getting front-page coverage in the city’s seven daily newspapers. It was the kind of outpouring of black power that no one, not Trotter, Du Bois or the NAACP leaders had ever witnessed before — certainly more evocative of the 1960s than the year 1915 in terms of the country’s collective memory.

In the end, the protest actions, legal and otherwise, failed to run Griffith’s movie out of town. It continued to play to sold-out houses in Boston well into the fall, by which time Griffith had moved on, taking his film south. At the opening in October in Spartanburg, S.C. — the state where Griffith had chosen to set his drama — one reviewer sang Griffith’s praises, writing, “Men who once wore gray uniforms, white sheets, and red shirts wept, yelled, whooped and cheered!”

Trotter and the other protesters knew their agitation had probably helped Griffith to sell tons of tickets — Griffith certainly saw it that way. But it was as if Trotter sensed the enormous power of the new medium of film, that he might circulate a year’s worth of newspapers and still not come close to reaching the kind of mass audience Griffith was finding with his movie. In that light, he chose to confront head-on Griffith’s virulent brand of hatespeech, deciding that not to speak out — and to let stand the movie’s racism — would be worse.

There were unintended benefits as well. While the film became a Klan recruiting tool, it also served as a rallying cry at a pivotal moment for the new NAACP. By the end of 1915, the organization had experienced dramatic growth — from 3,000 to 10,000 members, in 54 branches — a spurt largely resulting from the film protest. The challenge to Griffith also had brought together competing factions in the movement — Trotterites, Bookerites, and the NAACP. That unlikely harmony was not lost on one of Booker T. Washington’s supporters in Boston, a Dr. Samuel E. Courtney. Following one mass demonstration in Boston, Courtney wrote to Washington about the new solidarity: “I looked over that vast crowd of Negro men and women, and the thought came to me that his is a united people, and although in the minority now, they are going to win! I imagined all the black leaders meeting together here in Old Liberty Hall — Washington, Du Bois, Trotter — and forgetting their differences, and a race of ten millions of Negroes would be united.

“A nation would really be born.”

Dick Lehr is a journalism professor at Boston University. His latest book, “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War,” is the basis for an upcoming PBS documentary.