Footage for this film was found among 900 cans of film in the collection of 1939 Iris Barry, founder of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, who acquired 900 cans of film from the Actinograph Corp. Bronx Biograph studio and laboratory facilities, which was closing its film vault and planning to destroy all the film. Printing of some footage took place in 1976. In October 2014, MOMA presented the unedited film with a lecture about the film's background and reasons for it remaining unfinished. See more »
This film represents one of the great tragedies (and one of the great mysteries) in US film history. By 1913 when the theatrical agents Klaw and Erlanger commissioned Biograph to make this film, the African American community in the US was becoming difficult to ignore. In the world of entertainment, the distinctive styles of music and dance of black Americans, the minstrel-shows but also the comedy had become decidedly fashionable even amongst whites and in the vaudeville theatres their importance could scarcely be gainsaid.
Amongst the most innovatory of black comedy routines was that of "the Two Real Coons", the black-face duo of Bert Williams and George Walker. In 1909, amongst other things they produced a half-hour show based on a long-running and highly popular if mildly patronising series of stories penned, in a somewhat caricatural African American patois by white journalist Charles Bertrand Lewis called "Brother Gardner's Lime Kiln Club". In that same year (which was also the year in which Booker T. Washington founded The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Williams split with Walker to begin a solo career which would make him both the first black star of the Ziegfield Follies (1912-1919)and, as a singer, the most successful black recording artist of his time.
Amongst whites, Southern whites at that (he was born in South Carolina), Sam Corker (1874-1914) is a rather forgotten ally of African American performers. He organised many travelling minstrel shows and, as early as 1896, had been involved with A Trip to Coontown, the first black production to use only African American writers, directors, and producers, and the first black musical comedy to make a complete break with minstrelsy. In 1906 he acted as road-manager for the tour of Williams and Walker's ground-breaking musical comedy, In Dahomey (1902), the first African American production to have appeared on Broadway.
Cinema was much slower than theatre in recognising the importance of African American talent. Heretofore its main contribution in this respect was associated with another domain completely where African Americans were proving their worth - boxing. The key figure here was heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. When former white champion Jim Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement in 1910 as "the great white hope" in opposition to take on (and be very thoroughly beaten by) Johnson, the fight was a sensation.
The film of the Johnson-Jeffries fight was in all probability the most popular US film before The Birth of a Nation. Note, on the other hand, that there was a concerted campaign to try and ban the film, that it led to race riots in some places and that, shortly afterwards (1912) Jackson found himself under arrest on trumped-up charges of sexual offences under the newly-passed Mann Act.
With Jeffries undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and Bert Williams starring for a second year at the Ziegfield Follies, 1913 was a natural time for film to recognise the cultural importance of African Americans. The commissioners of this film were themselves associated with the Frohman Corporation and with the Ziegfield Follies while Sam Corker seems to have been the moving spirit behind the project.
We now know that some 60 minutes of film were shot (twice as long as the original stage version). Had this film been finished and released, it would have meant that a major production with an all-black cast) would have been amongst the earliest full-length films made in the US. The restorers of the film believe that it would have only played in a few local nickleodeons but this is unlikely. Commissioned by Klaw and Erlanger, it was almost certainly destined for the extensive vaudeville circuit that they and Frohman controlled. Its release would have been a major event.
What on earth could have induced Biograph to abandon it? It is true they may have been taken aback by its length. Biograph, like most of the older companies, did not believe an audience would sit through a film for more than half an hour) but this hardly seems a reason to abandon so many feet of precious celluloid that had been already shot.
Biograph must have come under heavy pressure from somewhere to abandon the film and it deems probable that this was connected both with the fact that Biograph's principal director, D.W. Griffith, was by now working on his own epic,painting a very different picture of African Americans and for that Woodrow Wilson (a former school chum of Thomas Dixon who had written the novel on which The Birth of a Nation is based) had just become US President.
Like the reactions to Jack Johnson's success in the ring, the abrupt aborting of this film bears witness to the degree of fear (albeit a fear tinged with fascination)with which US whites, at all levels of society, regarded the increasing cultural prominence of African Americans and underlines (if it needs to be underlined) to what extent The Birth of a Nation, far from being historical melodrama, was, like the refounding of the KKK, part of a systematic response to that emancipation.
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