Where President Woodrow Wilson infamously is said to have declared Birth of a Nation – an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s The Klansman, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors of White virtue during reconstruction to be “history writ with lightening,” the City of Norfolk attempted to ban its release. Meanwhile, Hampton University, an HBC founded by Booker T. Washington, co-financed a response film, Birth of a Race (1917), which presented the African American experience in a far more sympathetic light.1 In the current era, there is broad consensus among film historians as to Birth of a Nation’s prejudicial depictions of African Americans, though such critiques are too often overshadowed by a focus on the film’s historical significance as generative of the classical Hollywood filmmaking style. Moreover, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the ways Black artists, filmmakers, and patrons have responded to the Griffith film both then and now, nor to the national significance of local resistance to the film’s racist vision here in Hampton Roads.
The Birth of an Answer includes a scholarly symposium, a student film showcase , and a local showcase of black filmmaking in Virginia and black filmmakers from the area. The centerpiece of the event takes place on Friday, September 18, 2015 at the historic Attucks Theatre in downtown Norfolk and features A) The debut of Derrick Borte and David Mallin’s short fiction film, Our Nation B) a screening of Oscar Micheaux’s Within our Gates (1920) along with a live performance of an original film score composed by Adolphus Hailstork C) and a multigenerational panel of African American artists and professionals working in Hollywood. There will be a second screening of Our Nation and Within Our Gates held on Monday, September 21 at Chandler Recital Hall in the Diehn Performing Arts Building at Old Dominion University accompanied by a discussion with Adolphus Hailstork and Derrick Borte. discussing the ongoing efforts to create diverse and challenging stories about black Americans.
Our goals with the project are threefold: 1) to generate dialog between past and present African American creative and representational practices, 2) to recreate the experience of going to the cinema 100 years ago, when local musicians were often tasked with interpreting or inventing musical accompaniments to silent films that both captured the film’s themes and played to the tastes of local filmgoers, and 3) to engage an under 40 community of Hampton Roads residents on local history and historical forms of African American creative resistance to misrepresentation and stereotyping. In so doing, The Birth of an Answer shines a national spotlight on an underrepresented community’s creative legacy and vibrancy. It creates open forum conversations about the legacy of Birth of a Nation and continuing efforts to resist stereotyping and negative representations of African Americans. It helps residents of Hampton Roads understand the cultural significance of these forms of resistance and it creates opportunities for contemporary African American artists to dialog with past creative efforts to challenge misrepresentations.
The event will expose younger generation African Americans to the historical legacy of film and music as sites of creative challenge and will encourage thoughtful crossgenerational dialog about how these forms continue to offer outlets for challenging misrepresentation and marginalization within the US. The event will also serve as a means of engaging Hampton Roads residents (as well as visitors to the area) on the historically significant roles the arts have played in this region, and especially, how the arts were deployed to challenge racial stereotyping in Birth of a Nation. Finally, the event engages a broad constituency of students and art patrons on the importance of African American film and music as significant forms of artistic and cultural resistance to misrepresentation and stereotyping. In so doing, Birth of an Answer shines a national spotlight on an underrepresented community’s creative legacy and vibrancy.