Independent Lens: Birth of a Movement

About This Episode

In 1915, Boston-based African American newspaper editor and activist William M. Trotter waged a battle against D.W. Griffith’s technically groundbreaking but notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly The Birth of a Nation, unleashing a fight that still rages today about race relations, media representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood. Birth of a Movement, based on Dick Lehr's book "The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights," captures the backdrop to this prescient clash between human rights, freedom of speech, and a changing media landscape.

Set during the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation was told from a point of view sympathetic to the Confederacy, with its portrayal of African American men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive while members of the KKK were shown as valiant heroes protecting the innocent. Griffith's film was one of the first motion pictures screened at the White House, and white film audiences made it a box office hit, but in each city it traveled to it was also met with protests by African Americans, including by the newly formed NAACP and Trotter, who was positioning himself as a leading voice in a fractured civil rights movement.

Birth of a Movement features interviews with Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, DJ Spooky, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Dick Lehr, while exploring how Griffith’s film — long taught in film classes as an innovative work of genius — motivated generations of African American filmmakers and artists as they worked to reclaim their history and their onscreen image.