Black Pictures

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

directed by Richard Norman, Richard Maurice, Spencer Williams, and Oscar Micheaux; curated and including essays by Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart
Kino Lorber, five DVDs, $79.95
Everett Collection
Poster for The Exile (1931), the first sound feature written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, based on his novel The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer

Gustave Flaubert’s next best seller after Madame Bovary was Salammbô, a historical novel about a revolt of mercenaries in third-century-BC Carthage. The black novelist Charles Chesnutt saw the Italian film director Domenico Gaido’s adaptation, Salambo, in a Cleveland movie theater in 1915. Chesnutt remembered that when Spendius, the mercenary general’s black lieutenant, came on the screen, a white woman sitting next to him remarked, “Well, look at the coon! He’s a spy and a traitor, no doubt.” The medium of film was still rather new, but the attitudes projected through it were the familiar, vicious ones that Chesnutt, born a free black in North Carolina in 1858, had made it his life’s work to write against.

In 1915, Chesnutt joined the nationwide protests against the distribution of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In Boston, where the film had its premiere, the black newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter staged pickets, but W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP, founded in 1909, wondered if the efforts to stop the film only helped to advertise it. Griffith’s technical achievements were nullified by the film’s being based on the white supremacist novels of Thomas Dixon, Du Bois said. The Civil War battle scenes were one thing, but Griffith glorified the Klan and depicted “the emancipation and enfranchisement of the slave” as “an orgy of theft and degradation and wide rape of white women.” The Birth of a Nation gave a tremendous boost to the popularity of movies. Yet Du Bois thought that “without doubt the increase of lynching in 1915 and later was directly encouraged by this film.”

Booker T. Washington joined calls for The Birth of a Nation to be banned. His “Tuskegee Machine” had enjoyed some influence with Republican administrations, but that vanished with the election to the presidency in 1912 of the Virginia-born Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Washington, who had advocated racial survival through accommodation of Jim Crow practices in the South, said nothing publicly when one of Wilson’s first acts was to segregate federal government agencies in the nation’s capital. Du Bois had supported Wilson’s presidential bid, as had Trotter, who in 1914 felt so betrayed that curtains were going up to divide black clerks from white clerks that he led a delegation to the White House. Wilson had Trotter thrown out.

In 1915, Wilson welcomed Griffith to the White House for a special screening of The Birth of a Nation. He is supposed to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Thomas Dixon, who was also a Baptist minister, was a friend of Wilson’s. Wilson’s father, a Presbyterian minister, had been a Confederate…

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