A 21ST CENTURY RESPONSE TO A 20TH CENTURY CLASSIC AND CONTROVERSIAL FILM: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Written by Eleanor Earl, Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies and Film Studies Program Coordinator at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia

HU Students in front of historic Ogden Hall Hampton University Ogden Hall

In 1915 The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (Hampton Institute), which has since been renamed Hampton University, demonstrated the type of leadership one can only imagine the African-American community needed to witness in the wake of the release of a film that blatantly championed the institution of racism in America. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) reinforced the ideology that blacks were, and would remain, inferior to whites, that they were dangerous and untrustworthy. Shortly after the film’s release, Hampton Institute financed an independent short film that would serve as an official “response” to Griffith’s offensive and divisive film. The short film was screened in movie theaters, initially, after the feature-length film, Birth of a Nation. From all accounts, Hampton Institute’s “response” film did not counter racism with more racism; instead, it focused on placing a spotlight on the many successes members of the African-American community had already achieved.

I recently interviewed a highly regarded alumna of Hampton University about this sensitive subject. Myiti Sengstacke-Rice is the author of Chicago Defender, a volume in the “Images of America Series” published by Arcadia Publishing. The book captures its sweeping imprint on twentieth century African American culture and American History. She also carved out a unique voice as a living link to the years of Chicago’s history, which her father, grandfather and great granduncle helped make possible. Her father is renowned photographer, Bobby Sengstacke; her grandfather, John H. Sengstacke is the late publisher of the Chicago Defender and prominent civil rights advocate and critical negotiator for the White House. Finally, her great granduncle was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founding publisher of the Chicago Defender and the Bud Billiken Parade.

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She later became Associate Editor of the Chicago Defender. Myiti also cultivated her own career in history, media and print by becoming the founding editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine UPTOWN out of New York City in 2003. She later returned to Chicago to assist with organizing her family archives with the University of Chicago, Mapping the Stacks archival team. She is currently a college professor teaching African American Studies and Literature. Myiti Sengstacke-Rice has a Masters in Education in Inner City Studies from Northeastern Illinois University and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Governors State University in Illinois.

Myiti's photo Myiti Sengstacke-Rice

ELEANOR EARL: I was an undergraduate student at The University of Virginia when I first watched Birth of a Nation. When the film ended, I was left with a deep sense of sadness, confusion and a desire to “respond” by telling OUR stories. I wanted to tell them more accurately than what I had witnessed in Birth of a Nation, and to be honest, in many films I had watched during my formative years. Fortunately, I also learned about Oscar Micheaux during my tenure at UVA, where I watched scenes from Within Our Gates (1920) and other Micheaux films. It was helpful to know that African-Americans utilized the medium of film to encourage racial equality, and in some instances, to help their own community deal with intra-cultural issues that needed to be ameliorated in the African-American community . . .When did you first learn about Oscar Micheaux? How did his work counteract the “damage” D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation caused as far as the image of African-American people?

MYITI SENGSTACKE RICE: My introduction to Oscar Micheaux came through family history and stories my grandfather, John Sengstacke, told me. He told me about the friendship and business relationship between Chicago Defender founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott , and the prolific filmmaker.  Abbott was featured in one of Micheaux’s films, Millionaires(1927). Abbott was also a financial backer to Micheaux’s company.

ELEANOR EARL: You’re an actual descendent of someone who helped Micheaux realize his dream of becoming a filmmaker. That’s pretty amazing.

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: Yes, I am a descendent. Thank you.

ELEANOR EARL: And I think Oscar Micheaux really made the loudest noise, if you will, as a filmmaker, on behalf of the African-American community after Birth of a Nation was released.

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: We can all learn a lesson from Oscar Micheaux; he was a man beyond his time.  He was not afraid to step out and use his creative talents in order to challenge the ideals of D.W. Griffith and his racist counterparts. He presented a message in a way that was entertaining and eye opening. He clearly understood the importance of getting a message out to America in a way that otherwise would not have been heard at that time. The Oscar Micheaux’s of the world are necessary for the advancement of our society.

ELEANOR EARL: That’s profound; I agree. Micheaux didn’t accept limitations-economic or otherwise, when it came to making films that would “uplift” the African-American community, and ultimately all people, regardless of race or ethnicity… That brings me to another question, how did the Chicago Defender respond to the 1915 release of Birth of a Nation?

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: There was an opinion piece in the national edition of the Chicago Defender on October 2, 1915 entitled “Birth of a Nation: The Most Preposterous Adversary of the Negro Race of the Twentieth Century”.

ELEANOR EARL: Honest and Powerful. That probably summed up the feelings of those African-Americans and Caucasians who were not supporters of Griffith’s film.

 MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE:And you should note, around the 1915 filming of Birth of a Nation, the Chicago Defender was being distributed in 71 cities and towns nationwide—secretly of course—by Pullman porters.

ELEANOR EARL: Yes, I read that everything had to be done in the most discreet fashion throughout the south during that time.

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: The largest Defender readership outside Chicago was in southern states. Also in 1915 the Chicago Defender adopted the anti-lynching slogan “If you must die, take at least one with you,” many southern cities banned distribution of the paper. My Great Grand Uncle, Robert Sengstacke Abbott recognized an opportunity for southern African Americans to escape the brutal Jim Crow laws for greater prosperity in the north. In large part through the Defender’s efforts, somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 African Americans migrated to the north between 1916 and 1919.

ELEANOR EARL: Many would argue, and rightfully so, that the release of Birth of a Nation, along with many other contributing factors- to include the Chicago Defender’s articles about a better life for blacks in the north -played a major role in The Great Migration of African-Americans to the north. And how did the Chicago Defender also play a role in helping Oscar Micheaux’s film, Within Our Gates do well in theaters?

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: The1919 Chicago Riot produced friction between the Defender and its printer, which stopped production in the midst of the riot for fear of mobs outside the door. In November of that year, Abbott solved the problem by purchasing, in cash, his own high-speed printing press and installing it at the Defender’s new headquarters on Indiana Avenue. Less than a year after Chicago’s 1919 race riots, the Chicago Defender announced Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates on January 17, 1920. Micheaux’s film took two months to get past the Censor Board in Chicago and premiered on January 29, 1920. The delay in release, promoted in the film’s advertising, generated greater public interest, and Within Our Gates was successful in Chicago and other markets. A January 24th review of the film in The Chicago Defender suggested:

“People interested in the welfare of the Race cannot afford to miss seeing this great production, and, remember, it tells it all.”

ELEANOR EARL: Myiti, thanks for your time. Let’s continue this discussion soon. It would be great to learn more about the amazing history of the Chicago Defender. I’d also like to learn more about the ways in which you’re preserving your family’s legacy in media, politics and publishing.

MYITI SENGSTACKE-RICE: That sounds like a great idea. I’ll look forward to it.

 

Film and television are extraordinarily powerful mediums. The influence-both good and bad- they have had on society, is undeniable. For example, here we are 100 years later, still talking, writing, and thinking about Birth of a Nation and its impact on the social, cultural and political landscape of our nation. I should offer kudos to Griffith for accomplishing something most filmmakers only dream of doing-capturing and holding the attention of moviegoers for generations to come. Granted, I do not agree with the overall message of his film, nor, would I recommend a modern-day remake of it, which unfortunately, Hollywood is all too often prone to do. Instead, as a professor of film studies, I can objectively acknowledge the contributions he made in terms of elevating the production value of filmmaking, creating new approaches to shooting and editing and for bringing the blockbuster, feature-length film format to America. That’s it. No more praises beyond those. He could have made the same film without vilifying an entire race and glorifying hatred; however, he did not choose to do so. My job is to introduce the film to my students, and allow them to feel whatever emotions they must, whilst being able to acknowledge the aforementioned contributions Griffith made to the craft. Next, I will continue to counter this by sharing with them the amazing way in which their very own university “responded” to the lies in the film. I will also continue to make them aware of Oscar Micheaux and his many positive contributions to filmmaking. And please let me be clear, Birth of a Nation is not the only film that reeks of racism; there are many more I could add to the list that employ less overt messages of hatred. Again, my job is to encourage students to examine all of them. Experience all of them. Study all of them. And that is what I will continue to do.

Currently, the Film & Television Studies Program, which is housed in the Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages within the School of Liberal Arts at Hampton University, offers courses in writing for film and television, short film production, film history, film criticism and much more (http://libarts.hamptonu.edu/english/film/). We also provide master classes with film and television composers, producers, writers, former and current film and television executives, accomplished actors and actresses. Recently, students in my Introduction to Filmmaking course were featured in an article for The Washington Post magazine. My students produced short documentary films that “responded” to the racial, social and political unrest we have been witness to within the last year or so. You will be able to see the short films in their entirety during the BOAA Student Film Showcase in September.

 

LINK TO The Washington Post magazine article:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/teaching-ferguson-how-colleges-are-incorporating-race-cases-in-the-classroom/2015/02/09/a65a9bc2-96bf-11e4-8005-1924ede3e54a_story.html

 

Where do we go from here?

As a nation, we’ve truly come a considerable distance since Birth of a Nation was released; however, there is substantial evidence that would suggest there is still much work to be done. Hampton University will continue to “ respond” by empowering all of our students with the necessary skills and knowledge needed to make positive, uplifting and lasting contributions to film and television during the 21st-Century and beyond. And we will be sure to encourage our students to be committed to the creation and dissemination of content that reflects all races, cultures and ethnicities in a respectful and accurate manner.

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2 Responses to “A 21ST CENTURY RESPONSE TO A 20TH CENTURY CLASSIC AND CONTROVERSIAL FILM: WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?”

  1. Vanessa

    Beginning with the history of Hampton Institute’s (now Hampton University) response to the controversial film, “Birth of a Nation”, followed by the vivid description of Myiti Sengstacke-Rice’s notable achievements, Professor Eleanor Earl instantly captures the reader’s interest here. She paints a story in vivid detail of the social and cultural impact of Oscar Micheaux’s films. How amazing it is to me that 100 years later, although much has changed, much still remains the same in these United States of America. Kudos to Professor Earl for not being afraid of addressing the racial issue/the racial divide and allowing her students to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions positively through the mediums of film and television.

    Reply
  2. Antoinette

    Brilliant article! I am truly inspired by Myiti’s powerful family’s history. Bravo Professor Earl in your refreshing and empowering teaching method. I look forward to reading more articles like this one!

    Reply

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