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'The Birth Of A Race' - The Great Black Film Epic That Never Was

by Sergio
June 2, 2014 6:40 PM
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Emmett J. Scott and Booker T. Washington

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 black people into violent savages who were 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 villains 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 laments 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 that was to be sort of response to Birth of a Nation, as a way of countering its lies.

At first, the NAACP considered 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 where the NAACP left off.

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 was to be screened before Birth of a Nation in theaters.

However, as Scott further developed Lincoln's Dream, bringing in screenwriters and changing the title of the film to The Birth of a Race, his project grew larger and grander in scope, to eventually becoming a 3-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 with the financing, but they turned him down. So, putting Booker T. 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 even more problems, the whole production was forced to move to Tampa, Florida to be completed.

However, the production was still plagued by a serious lack of money, and Scott was eventually forced to bring in white backers to help to keep the his ship afloat.

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 cinema 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 a 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 public view afterward. 

I don’t know if even an entire print of the film is in existence, except for the brief clip below.

Alhough Scott is still listed in historical records as the producer of the film, I have no doubt that the final version 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.

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  • Floyd Webb | June 3, 2014 4:08 PMReply

    Booker T actually went to Hollywood and spoke with Louis B Mayer. Mayer agreed to provide funding for the film if he could come up with a portion of the production financing.
    Scott went to Chicago and engaged a gentleman who claimed to be able to help him. He instantly raised a fortune in the name of this good project and on Booker Ts name and promptly disappeared.

    Say what you will about onl man Mayer, at least he was willing to try. :-)
    Lesson? Watch them Chicago shysters claiming to want to "help" you raise the money for you film.

  • parsyeb | June 3, 2014 11:12 AMReply

    If you want to see the same premise but actually seen through, check out Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates, a mean reveal of the South's lynching policies.

    As for Birth, it's worth arguing that the film serves us historically because it reveals dominant ideologies, as well as making us rethink our attachment to all that it great in cinema (it can do THIS?). It's way harder to see what's beautiful and great about Birth than to see what's wrong, but it's to Griffith's credit that, little by little, he takes the joy of the film and dirties it with the racism. Gone with the Wind certainly doesn't do that, and it's candy-coated fantasy about the antebellum South seems much more insidious and evil than anything Griffith's film does. At least his film's honest and up-front about it (as for the blackface, I wonder now whether or not it's a good thing in Birth -- that way, no black actor or actress had to demean themselves by playing the role. The few African Americans in the film look depressed and afraid. Reality reveals itself).

  • Miles Ellison | June 4, 2014 5:21 PM

    The bigger issue is how racism is hard wired into both films. Most white people who saw Birth of a Nation when it was originally released didn't think there was anything wrong with it. To this day, most white people don't see what's wrong Gone with the Wind's candy coated Lost Cause fantasy.

  • NAILED IT | June 3, 2014 12:45 PM

    Wonderful analysis, particularly the juxtaposition of Birth and Gone. Wish that more analysis here would follow similar lines of thinking, digging beneath the surface text.

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