MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are going to spend the next few minutes talking about how the issue of race can play out in some surprising ways in this country, both in big public events and in our personal lives. We start with a story by a historic film many Americans know well - D.W. Griffith's silent film "The Birth Of A Nation." When it was released a hundred years ago, it became America's first blockbuster movie. It drew record audiences with its distorted depictions of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, which included caricatures of blacks as violent brutes and Ku Klux Klansmen as gallant heroes. African-Americans organized protests against the film, but when protest failed, a movie called "The Birth Of A Race" was created to refute Griffith. As R.H. Greene tells us, this largely forgotten film was the first sustained effort by African-American to tell their story on screen.
R.H. GREENE, BYLINE: D.W. Griffith was an American master whose stirring visuals overwhelmed audiences with editing and camera techniques so advanced they're still used today.
DICK LEHR: And he brought it to bear with a hate message - a message of racism.
GREENE: That's Dick Lehr. He wrote a book about African-American opposition to "Birth Of A Nation."
LEHR: An amazing opposition - you never realize this kind of protest went on in 1915. They took to the streets. They took to the courts. They took to the State House, saying, we cannot stand idly by as this new, big thing called a feature film starts brainwashing American viewers.
GREENE: Emmett J. Scott agreed. He was a trusted aide to Booker T. Washington, the legendary founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Scott became a major figure in African-American culture in his own right.
THOMAS CRIPPS: He played everything for dignity, intelligence.
GREENE: Film historian Thomas Cripps has written extensively about Emmett J. Scott.
CRIPPS: He was an important figure in trying to counter the image of African-Americans as buffoons and fools and so on.
GREENE: Scott got to work. He wanted to produce an epic movie about the real history of black America, complete with the taunting title "The Birth Of A Race."
CRIPPS: The idea was to, in fact, challenge "The Birth Of A Nation," to say that there was another side to the story. And that's with "The Birth Of A Race" was trying to convey.
GREENE: Scott's vision for the film survives to this day. You can read it on microfilm at the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection at UCLA.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're going to give you the real microfilm.
GREENE: There, Scott's 1916 prospectus, a brochure meant to entice investors, can be read from a glowing monitor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GREENE: All right. Here we are, reading off the screen.
(Reading) "The Birth Of A Race" - the true story of the Negro, his life in Africa, his enslavement, his freedom, his achievements, together with his past, present and future relations with his white neighbor. It will bring close the future in which the races - all races - will see each other as they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GREENE: Scott hired the pioneering Selig Polyscope Company to shoot his epic. By some accounts, Selif shot fully half the movie as Scott envisioned it - film that might have altered forever the history of the African-American screen. Then, with production only half complete, they threw all that footage away.
JOSIE WALTERS-JOHNSTON: I don't know what happened (laughter) to the script or what.
GREENE: That's Josie Walters-Johnston. Walters-Johnston works in the one place in the world where you can actually see the only surviving print of "The Birth Of A Race."
WALTERS-JOHNSTON: I am a reference librarian in the moving image research center at the Library of Congress.
GREENE: She's also African-American. Walters-Johnston was eager to watch "Birth Of A Race" for this story and to see how close it came to producer Emmett J. Scott's original dream.
WALTERS-JOHNSTON: Oh, not close at all. It kind of missed the mark almost completely.
GREENE: The finished film is a Bible epic, awkwardly fused with vignettes from American history. It's unclear what happened, but the sole surviving print is nothing like Scott's vision.
WALTERS-JOHNSTON: The only time there is a direct address to slavery was during the story of, you know, Moses and the exodus from Egypt. This film flattened it and just talked about the race as being human race.
GREENE: The few film historians who even know of "The Birth Of A Race" blame the outbreak of World War I for the film's complete shift of focus. A 1918 review in Variety offers another possibility - racism. It said, quote, "the Selig Company, which had arranged to produce the picture, dropped out due to the character of its propaganda, whereupon the character of the picture was altered. A large quantity of film depicting certain phases of the advancement of the Negro race was dropped," unquote. One scene in the existing prints suggests what might've been - two farmers - one black, one white - working in a field as equals.
WALTERS-JOHNSTON: The white farmer stands up, hearing this imaginary call to arms. Dissolve into both of the men wearing identical army uniforms, equipped identically, so there's no distinct difference between them. And then they kind of march off to war together.
GREENE: That loan image of racial equality is almost all that remains of Emmett J. Scott's original dream. For NPR News, I'm R.H. Greene.