The history of the movies is littered with ambitious film projects that could have changed the course of cinema, but were either not made for various reasons or so compromised by other factors that the end result was vastly different than what was first conceived.
And The Birth of a Race is definitely one of those latter films.
If the film that was originally conceived was actually made, it would be one of the most important black films ever made, still to this day. Instead the final result was a travesty.
The sad story all began in 1915 when D.W. Griffith’s 192 minute epic The Birth of a Nation was released to the public. It was the film that single handedly revolutionized movies, turning them from an entertaining novelty of short films into an art form that could make a lot of money for a lot of people (In today's dollars Nation would be easily in the top ten of the highest-grossing movies in film history).
But Nation is also, of course, a vile film. Made by Griffith, who was a proud Southerner and unrepentant supporter of the Confederacy, the film rewrote the actual facts of American Civil War history, turning back people into violent savages who are intent on “crushing the white South under the heel of the black South" with “ruin, devastation rape and pillage”.
It is up to the film’s heroes, the KKK, who literally ride to the rescue at the last minute to save the day, and put the black people back in their place.
Needless to say, the film was, and still is today, very controversial, and it’s not surprising that there were numerous demonstrations and riots against it (All of which Griffith totally loved, since it meant more publicity for his film).
Of course there was outrage and many cries against the film by black people, and organizations such as the NAACP, and it wasn’t too long before the idea came about to make a film as a sort of response to Nation as a way of countering its lies.
At first the NAACP floated the idea of such a film but quickly dropped the project, so it was left to Emmett J. Scott (pictured above-left) who had been the personal secretary to Booker T. Washington (pictured above-right) to pick up the torch.
At first his idea was very modest. With financing from well-to-do and middle class black people, Scott intended to make a 15 minute short film called Lincoln’s Dream that would show the accomplishments of black people. which would be shown before Nation in theaters.
However as Scott further developed Dream, bringing in screenwriters and changing the title of the film to The Birth of a Race, his project grew larger and grander and soon Scott envisioned his film to be a three hour black film epic that would out rival Nation.
Seeing that the project was getting more expensive than originally planned, Scott tried to get Universal Pictures involved, but they turned him down. So, putting Washington’s do-for-self philosophy into action, he went out and decided to make his epic film on his own, in Chicago.
Unfortunately, the film was plagued with problems from the beginning. Poorly funded, it suffered from inadequate, low rent, production values and delays. Furthermore, when bad weather in Chicago caused further problems, the whole production was forced to move to Tampa, Florida to shoot the rest of the film.
However the film still suffered from a serious lack of money and Scott was eventually forced to bring in white backers to help to keep the production going.
Naturally those new backers weren’t so keen on making a black film, so, little by little, scene by scene, and rewrite by rewrite, Scott’s grand version for a black epic became a simplistic World War I film about two German-American brothers who find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the war.
In fact, with the exception of few stereotyped Africans in the film, there were no black people in Birth of a Race at all.
The final result opened in Chicago in December 1918, just a month after the end of WW I, and flopped, quickly disappearing from view afterward. I don’t know if even an entire print of the film is in existence, except for the brief clip below.
Though Scott is still listed in historical records as the producer of the film, I have no doubt that the final film must have been a great disappointment to him. His grand dream turned into a disaster.
But by any definition of the word, Emmett J. Scott is a true black film pioneer.