“Birth of a Nation” debuted to much dismay one hundred years ago at Boston’s Tremont Theatre. The film centers around the story of the Civil War, but is told in a way that is demeaning to African Americans while transforming members of the Ku Klux Klan into heroes. The Astoria museum often showcases the controversial film as a means to fuel race relations discussion. Also in their possession is the booklet that inspired the film. At 10 inches long and 8 inches wide, the darkened-and-brittled by age booklet not only showcased a segregated America, but it was practically the launch pad of the civil rights movement.
In the episode, author Dick Lehr looks further into the consequences of the booklet and film around the country. Lehr focuses on William Monroe Trotter, a newspaper owner who grew so upset by the film that he staged protests to ban the film. “Birth of a Nation” depicted African American men as aggressive, hypersexualized beings who posed a severe threat to white women. Even though Trotter’s protests and campaign to ban the film in Boston backlashed, he still laid the stone of a movement for equality.
For Don Wildman, host of “Mysteries at the Museum,” he considers the show to be a platform for subjects that are not widely known about in the United States. Wildman, who is married to an African American woman, admitted to be ashamed of not knowing Trotter’s history before the show. However, one of his favorite things about “Mysteries at the Museum” is that it triggers one to do more research about important stories that have largely gone unknown.
“I literally didn’t know about Trotter before we did this piece, I am afraid to say, because he is a huge story,” Wildman said. “He was way before his time, he confronted the people who were behind the production and display of this movie and he was the beginning of a much stronger voice of protest.”
And during a time when there are many protests and the treatment of African American men is heavily scrutinized, “Birth of a Nation” opens the door to discuss race relations from the past to present day. One hundred years ago, this film with a message of hate was being screened at the White House under the Woodrow Wilson administration. In today’s society, we have “Selma” which was screened at the White House by the Obama administration. It’s interesting to consider the tattered booklet within the Museum of the Moving Image was partly responsible for this remarkable change. Additionally, a takeaway lesson from Trotter, and protesters in general, is that it’s better to bring things out in the open.
“There are times in this country where people have said please be quiet or don’t protest too loudly, but it doesn’t do any good in the long run,” Wildman said. “Looking back at this movie and the outcome in particular is a good way to see how far we’ve come and yet how far we still have to go.”