From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview

2
THE BIRTH OF A NATION

ON A QUIET DAY in April 1915, Mayor James Curley of Boston convened a hearing. The subject was D. W. Griffith new film, The Birth of a Nation, and whether or not it should be banned in the city -- there had already been threats to dynamite the theater where the film was to be shown. About three hundred people crowded into the hearing room, most of them (as one reporter put it) "interested in the uplift of the colored race." Support for those speaking against the film became so vociferous that a number of times Curley had to ask policemen to restore order. 1

But it soon became apparent that the hearing was little more than a sham concocted by Curley in the hope of retaining support among black voters. When a white New York social worker who was also an officer of the NAACP objected to the grotesque expressions on the faces of the black women in the film, the mayor told her that "the expressions . . . on the faces . . . of characters . . . in Shakespearean productions could be considered likewise." To Moorfield Storey, the white Bostonian who headed the Boston NAACP branch, Curley said that the objections to The Birth of a Nation as racist propaganda would be no more valid than protests against Shakespeare Henry VIII for maligning the Roman Catholic church. 2

The defenders of the film were often forced to raise their voices so they could be heard over the hisses and shouts of the protestors. Griffith himself was loudly booed when he declared that "if protests of this kind" succeeded it would mean "that the Indian could protest moving pictures, for in most Western pic-

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From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents ix
  • Intruduction: the Lack of Humanity 1
  • 1 - Gamut from a to B 7
  • 2 - The Birth of a Nation 23
  • 3 - The Freezing of an Image 41
  • 4 - All-Colored -- but Not Very Different 59
  • 5 - Shufflin' into Sound 83
  • 6 - A Limited Response 119
  • 7 - Glimmers of Change 145
  • 8 - A Pale Black Imitation 173
  • 9 - Toward a New Image 197
  • 10 - Black Is Boxoffice 233
  • Notes 265
  • Notes 267
  • Bibliography 279
  • Index 289
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