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In 1915, two men -- one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker -- incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights. Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South In 1915, two men -- one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker -- incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights. Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe's father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry -- including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.'s father -- fled for their lives. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln's assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country. Monroe Trotter's titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.


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In 1915, two men -- one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker -- incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights. Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South In 1915, two men -- one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker -- incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights. Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe's father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry -- including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.'s father -- fled for their lives. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln's assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country. Monroe Trotter's titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

30 review for The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    This book disappointed me at first, simply by not being what I had imagined it would be. However, it’s hardly fair to criticize an author for failing to write what I wished he would write, and I admit that Lehr has mostly succeeded in what he set out to do, and has produced a book that is entertaining and informative, despite a few problems. Let’s start by getting it out of the way, then: Lehr is not a film historian, and this book is not a useful study of the movie “The Birth of a Nation” that w This book disappointed me at first, simply by not being what I had imagined it would be. However, it’s hardly fair to criticize an author for failing to write what I wished he would write, and I admit that Lehr has mostly succeeded in what he set out to do, and has produced a book that is entertaining and informative, despite a few problems. Let’s start by getting it out of the way, then: Lehr is not a film historian, and this book is not a useful study of the movie “The Birth of a Nation” that will satisfy anyone serious about the history of film in the United States, and particularly not anyone familiar (as I am) with the films of the period in which it came out. He’s not even a historian, in fact, he is a professor of journalism, and his acknowledgements, although they include a number of archivists, are conspicuous in the absence of anyone trained in the professional study of history. Accordingly, he treats events of 100 years ago as more or less journalistic factoids, with no historical analysis or attempt to engage with current relevant studies (as for example of the rebirth of the KKK in and after 1915) and trends in history. I would not recommend this book to graduate students or others serious about historiography: it is popular history in every sense of the word. That said, and all professional snobbishness aside, it is an interesting examination of the battle in the city of Boston over the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” and is particularly interesting in terms of the early stages of debates over hate speech and propaganda, civil rights vs civil liberties, and the ways in which people in different positions of power will perceive the same thing differently. He sets it up as a sort of dual biography of the director, D.W. Griffith, and one Monroe Trotter, who I’d never heard of before, but was a leading editor of an African American newspaper and an early civil rights activist with connections to the newly-founded NAACP. Both of them had fathers who had fought in the Civil War (on opposite sides, of course), and both were similar in having struggled in adulthood to find stable careers, having come to their “callings” at a later age than others, and perhaps being that much more devoted to them as a result. They were also both very controversial, even divisive, public figures. The story of the confrontation is therefore filled with the sort of drama one would hope for in a journalistic account of historical events, and Lehr brings many fascinating details to light, often treating his subject in a novelistic fashion, with many enjoyable scenes and colorful characters. Still, I had some problems. Probably the most troubling decision in the book was to use the word “Negro” (capitalized) to describe African Americans. He defends this in an author’s note at the beginning, claiming that the term was not only not offensive at the time he is writing about, it was the preferred term for advocates of civil rights and members of the race. He says that he finds the use of “African American” or “black” in historical studies “jarring,” and essentially argues that he is being true to his subject. If that is the case, he appears to have a very selective ear. His book is littered with modernisms and even Internet slang such as “[Griffith] was all about composition,” (p. 100), “The story about the dustup between the president and the Guardian editor went viral.” (p. 146), “…made a point to schmooze with the two in the lobby” and “then came a fierce reality check.” (both p. 206), and “any marketing missteps…were small brushfires that had little impact on the movie’s buzz” (p. 207). For some reason these a-historical uses of language don’t bother Lehr, but seeing the term “African American” in a historical book about African Americans does. Methinks he tells us more about himself than his subject, here. I have noted that in certain privileged white circles there is a certain “giggle factor” in using the word “Negro,” something like “I almost said the n-word, only I didn’t.” I hope, at least, that Lehr’s predilection for the word is more sophisticated, but I do think he would do to reflect more carefully on how he comes across. I’ve already mentioned that Lehr isn’t a historian, and now I’d like to examine a case that illustrates the problems that raises in his historical study. He makes a special point of thanking a colleague for directing him to an important secondary source, Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications His use of this source, however, rather than a wider reading (or use of primary sources) raised one of the larger red flags I hit while reading, however. On page 92, Lehr says, “But Edison’s [film apparatus] was the first public use of a large-screen projector to its fullest effect – inside a spacious and darkened theater before paying audiences swept away by all the emotion and sensory overload from the oversize moving pictures.” Now, everyone familiar with my blog, The Century Film Project, will know that I stand strongly against the myth of Edison’s invention of projected movies: it was decidedly the Lumiere Brothers in France who held the first public screening of projected motion pictures (as opposed to Kinetoscope machines that were viewable by one person at a time on a small screen through a peephole). So, I went to check his source, and lo and behold, Starr says, on pages 299-300 (the ones Lehr cited for this passage): “In France, August and Louis Lumiere began using a projector they invented, the cinématographe, to show film to audiences during 1895.” He then mentions the American development of a similar system and its introduction by Edison in April, 1896. In other words STARR HAD IT RIGHT, however Lehr, by not reading more widely on this important subject, and perhaps due to a cursory reading of his single source, has reversed the meaning of Starr’s words and introduced a major blunder into his narrative. Now, I’m nit-picking about this particular point, because it happens to be more important to me than it is to Lehr’s narrative. In fact, the question of where projected movies started has fairly little to do with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” in Boston. The point, however, is the danger of trying to write history based on limited reading of secondary sources. If this error was allowed to slip through, despite the fact that his own source disagrees, how many other facts in Lehr’s narrative are similarly questionable? Maybe none. I didn’t spot anything else so obvious, but one has to wonder. Nevertheless, I do recommend this book as it should stimulate interest in the period, in early film making, and in the troubled legacies of Hollywood and civil rights. Readers less familiar than I with these topics will find this an engaging introduction.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sugarpuss O'Shea

    While I've heard of most of the main personalities in this book -- Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, James Michael Curley, President Wilson (Obviously!), & D.W. Griffith -- I've never heard of William Monroe Trotter. Why is that? Why did they write this man out of history? Seems to me Mr Trotter was a man ahead of his time, who dared to call out the status quo (Yes Mr Washington, I'm looking at you!) and wanted something better than the keep-your-head-down, go-along-to-get-al While I've heard of most of the main personalities in this book -- Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, James Michael Curley, President Wilson (Obviously!), & D.W. Griffith -- I've never heard of William Monroe Trotter. Why is that? Why did they write this man out of history? Seems to me Mr Trotter was a man ahead of his time, who dared to call out the status quo (Yes Mr Washington, I'm looking at you!) and wanted something better than the keep-your-head-down, go-along-to-get-along path that was expected from people of color. He was far too vocal for most people's taste, and far too pure in his belief that a black civil rights organization/movement should come from blacks themselves, no matter how well intended whites were, or how deep their pockets (i.e. the NAACP's founders). This made him too 'radical' to fit into either camp. That was until THE BIRTH OF A NATION came along.... This is the story of how one film managed to galvanize all 3 factions of the early civil rights movement, into a group with a single purpose: to stop the showing of THE BIRTH OF A NATION at the Tremont Theater in Boston. This book lays out how Mr Trotter lead that 8 week fight, and all the friction he had to endure along the way. I picked up this book after reading BLACK KLANSMAN. To this day, David Duke uses THE BIRTH OF A NATION to recruit new members to join the Klan. It's how they close the deal. Sitting here 104 years later, looks like Mr Trotter was on to something, doesn't it?

  3. 4 out of 5

    KayDee

    Since I didn’t take any film classes in college, I had never seen the film Birth of a Nation. This book caught my eye and I read it in tandem with watching parts of the film, which is available in its entirety on YouTube. The book showcased the efforts of William Monroe Trotter, a black activist, to ban the showing of the racist film. This, of course, pitted him against the film’s creator, D.W. Griffith. Other early Civil rights leaders are also represented in the book and I found this a fascina Since I didn’t take any film classes in college, I had never seen the film Birth of a Nation. This book caught my eye and I read it in tandem with watching parts of the film, which is available in its entirety on YouTube. The book showcased the efforts of William Monroe Trotter, a black activist, to ban the showing of the racist film. This, of course, pitted him against the film’s creator, D.W. Griffith. Other early Civil rights leaders are also represented in the book and I found this a fascinating read. Warning: The film is over 3 hours in length. I found it easiest to skip to places in the film after I read about the particular scenes in the book since, other than the representation of early filmmaking techniques, it’s a very difficult movie to watch in the way black Americans are portrayed by actors in blackface.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    Dick Lehr has offered a unique view of the last step in the downward spiral of race relations in this country. A frequently over looked aspect of this is the release of The Birth of a Nation. The fact that the fight against this movie was lead by an educated black man who fought against the prevailing notion of Booker T. Washington and the mindset he espoused is truly fascinating. It shows the struggle within the nascent civil rights movement in a fascinating level. To me this is the true story Dick Lehr has offered a unique view of the last step in the downward spiral of race relations in this country. A frequently over looked aspect of this is the release of The Birth of a Nation. The fact that the fight against this movie was lead by an educated black man who fought against the prevailing notion of Booker T. Washington and the mindset he espoused is truly fascinating. It shows the struggle within the nascent civil rights movement in a fascinating level. To me this is the true story and it is told, in my opinion, for the first time. The story here is this and not the movie which serves as a convenient foil. I did find the story of the movie to be fascinating if somewhat truncated. I find the only weakness of the book is that it makes little, if any, attempt to follow up and explain why the movie itself is regarded as such a ground breaking film. The book could have used more detail on the film than what was provided. Still this is an excellent book and I strongly suggest it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ellery

    A fascinating story, but also a mirror reflecting much of the divide in America that persists today, one hundred years later.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    In 1915, director D.W. Griffith screened for Woodrow Wilson at the White House his new film Birth of a Nation. It was a retelling of the Civil War and Reconstruction in which the South were seen as victims. It told of Black men who were were shiftless at best, rapists of white women at worst. It represented the KKK as an organization that was dedicated to their protection. If it was only these things it most likely would have had a short run with little notice. However, Birth of a Nation was li In 1915, director D.W. Griffith screened for Woodrow Wilson at the White House his new film Birth of a Nation. It was a retelling of the Civil War and Reconstruction in which the South were seen as victims. It told of Black men who were were shiftless at best, rapists of white women at worst. It represented the KKK as an organization that was dedicated to their protection. If it was only these things it most likely would have had a short run with little notice. However, Birth of a Nation was like no film ever seen before. All of the racism and hate was presented in a format that change filmmaking as people knew it. From costumes, to camera angles, to music, Birth of a Nation was propaganda the likes of which had never been seen before and led President Wilson at the time to call it “history in lightning”. Enter Monroe Trotter. Harvard educated and seeking a career in high finance, he was in every sense apolitical. He gave little thought to racial issues and was more concerned with starting his career with the Boston elite. When he found the blocked time and again because of his race, he began to speak out and soon rose to national prominence as an outspoken opponent of racial inequality, setting his sights on taking down Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in his home of Boston. The paths of these two men, Griffith and Trotter, intersect in often fascinating ways. Their fathers were both officers in the Civil War, and both men also were unable to establish themselves in their chosen careers (Griffith as an actor, Trotter as a financier). That they would be on a collision course about in 1915 regarding free speech, race, and history is perhaps then no surprise but makes for compelling reading. Almost as interesting are some of the more peripheral characters such as Thomas Dixon (the author whose book the film was based) and Booker T. Washington. The former was, as many Southern men at the time, very up front about his disdain for black people and hoped the film would be a tool to galvanise Southern and Northern white men. Washington perhaps more than anyone comes out of this book looking the worst. I must admit that the little I know of him is based on some short biographies in middle school talking about his contribution to Black education through his founding of Tuskegee Institute. What I didn’t know is that he was incredibly thin skinned (he hired personal detectives to follow Trotter and often spread rumours about his opponents), obsessed with promoting his university often at the expense of capitulating to whites for funding, and…how to say this delicately…a bit of a sellout. Hearing that Trotter for example was upset that President Wilson told him that segregation was good for the races, Washington saw it as an opportunity to be in the White House’s good graces and perhaps gain some publicity for his school. When W.E.B DuBois or Trotter would call for more equality, Washington would give speeches talking about how “negroes” need to not worry about equality or start trouble and that taking entry level jobs to support themselves was the most important thing. Washington frequently said things like this (to often cheering audiences of White people): “The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house.” Or “In all things purely social we can be separate as the fingers,” he declared, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to material progress.” Or “Is there any reason why the Negroes in the South should continue to oppose the Southern white man and his politics?” he asked. “Is this not the source of nearly all our troubles?” This isn’t a book about Washington but it’s hard to overlook his influence in a society where men like Monroe Trotter were fighting for the rights of Black citizens against not only insidious men like Griffith and his film but the enemy within in the form of men like Washington. I learned quite a bit from this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to understand turn of the century America better or the film which played a pivotal role in changing it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mark Barsotti

    Dick Lehr's bracing 2014 history rediscovers crusading newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, who confronted Woodrow Wilson in the White House and led the fight to get D. W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION banned in Boston. Trotter's father, James Monroe Trotter, rose to the rank of Sergeant Major in the Union army and helped lead the fight to ensure black troops were paid the same as their white counterparts. The younger Trotter was editor and publisher of the Guardian, a black newspaper th Dick Lehr's bracing 2014 history rediscovers crusading newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, who confronted Woodrow Wilson in the White House and led the fight to get D. W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION banned in Boston. Trotter's father, James Monroe Trotter, rose to the rank of Sergeant Major in the Union army and helped lead the fight to ensure black troops were paid the same as their white counterparts. The younger Trotter was editor and publisher of the Guardian, a black newspaper that refused advertising or contributions from whites. He was the mentor to W.E.B. Du Bois and helped launch the NAACP, even though lone wolf Trotter was never a member. Failed stage actor David Wark Griffith found his calling in the new medium of film, and after making hundreds of "one-reelers" (and making his bosses millions) invented himself as Hollywood's first all-powerful director. Griffith was both a technical genius, who understood and incorporated techniques developed by others, and a master of pimp-yourself public relations, which at times had only a nodding relationship with the truth. As with Trotter, Griffith views on race and history were learned at his father's knee, and "Roaring Jake" Griffith had indeed been a Confederate officer, even if most of his tales of wartime derring-do were invented from whole cloth. While Griffith was helping transform the movies from "seedy" underclass entertainment to respected art form, Trotter was battling Booker T. Washington, whose "improve yourself now and civil rights will come later" approach to race relations both played well in the south and was the dominate, if not only, model, for blacks to aspire to at the turn of the 20th Century. When Griffith was ready to attempt the first "block-buster" in the history of cinema, he choice to adapt the best selling novel of 1905, Thomas Dixon Jr.'s racist love letter to the KKK, THE CLANSMAN, and the long battle, which unfolded in the streets and courthouses of Boston, was soon joined. By 1941, Griffith was telling a biographer that BIRTH OF A NATION should no longer be screened for the general pubic, as the Negro race had "suffered enough." Griffith's vision and genius as a director remain undeniable, as does NATION's baleful influence on American history. In the autumn of 2015, as the movie began playing in the south, the Klu Klux Klan no longer existed. By 1921, they had almost hundred thousand members nationwide and the group's '20's boom was just getting started. Not only does author Lehr's bring one of the first modern legal and PR battles over Civil Rights (and what would later be called "hate Speech") to page-turning life, his book rescues William Monroe Trotter, the man who, perhaps more than any other, largely forged the template for all underclass political activism down to our very day, from underserved obscurity. High recommended.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Gloria

    The book is not about the film "The Birth of a Nation." Rather it is about the ability of a new media to influence a populace and drive a national conversation. It's about the Boston protests that agitated for removal of the blatant racism in the film - specifically, a "Negro" man who wants to ravage a white woman. It about the tension between the Freedom of Speech and Civil Rights. It's an important history. I didn't like the writing or the organization of the book. While he alternates chapters The book is not about the film "The Birth of a Nation." Rather it is about the ability of a new media to influence a populace and drive a national conversation. It's about the Boston protests that agitated for removal of the blatant racism in the film - specifically, a "Negro" man who wants to ravage a white woman. It about the tension between the Freedom of Speech and Civil Rights. It's an important history. I didn't like the writing or the organization of the book. While he alternates chapters between the lives of D.W. Griffiths and Monroe Trotter, I've seen this vehicle used to better success. In this book, it comes across as disjointed. He also moves between what seems like personal, unsupported speculation to a rendering of dry facts that are really boring. I'm glad I read it. It's a history I didn't know anything about and it gives a good background to the second rising of the KKK.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rick Vetrone

    While I am 'glad i read it', because i wanted to get a more complete version of the various responses to the film when it first appeared in 1915-- and especially wanted to know more about the contemporary opposition/resistance to its version of u.s. history (and it did provide that); overall i felt that the writing was too 'journalist' for my taste and didn't give as much deep analysis of the political/cultural forces at work as i would have wished. Still, an important piece of the larger story While I am 'glad i read it', because i wanted to get a more complete version of the various responses to the film when it first appeared in 1915-- and especially wanted to know more about the contemporary opposition/resistance to its version of u.s. history (and it did provide that); overall i felt that the writing was too 'journalist' for my taste and didn't give as much deep analysis of the political/cultural forces at work as i would have wished. Still, an important piece of the larger story that i found worth knowing . (see: _Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II_ by Cedric J. Robinson . 2007, University of North Carolina Press for a fascinating and stylistically-intense example (in Chapter 2) of what i thought Lehr's book lacked).

  10. 4 out of 5

    David Blankenship

    This is a fascinating account of a conflict between free speech and a concern that such speech, though favored by a majority, is so horrendous in its racism that it leads to violence and turmoil. I had heard of this film before but the story behind it was unknown to me. It is hard to imagine a similar scene today; today the protest to suppress speech would often come from conservatives and be protected by progressives. Also worth noting is the horrible racism of the period that was accepted as f This is a fascinating account of a conflict between free speech and a concern that such speech, though favored by a majority, is so horrendous in its racism that it leads to violence and turmoil. I had heard of this film before but the story behind it was unknown to me. It is hard to imagine a similar scene today; today the protest to suppress speech would often come from conservatives and be protected by progressives. Also worth noting is the horrible racism of the period that was accepted as fact by even the highest officials in state and national government. Their actions, as much as anything, helped feed the support for Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and ultimately the need for civil rights protests after WWII. This book does a great job painting the picture of racism in early 20th century America.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Judith Squires

    I've always been interesting in the early days of motion pictures and very much interested in the struggle for equal rights and this great book did not disappoint. It introduced me to a remarkable man, Monroe Trotter, the first person of African-American descent to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard. A publisher in Boston, he persevered to attempt to ban the showing of Birth of a Nation in Boston. This is also the story of David Wark Griffith, who made that very controversial epic. Griffith wa I've always been interesting in the early days of motion pictures and very much interested in the struggle for equal rights and this great book did not disappoint. It introduced me to a remarkable man, Monroe Trotter, the first person of African-American descent to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard. A publisher in Boston, he persevered to attempt to ban the showing of Birth of a Nation in Boston. This is also the story of David Wark Griffith, who made that very controversial epic. Griffith was the son of a Confederate veteran and romanticized slavery and the "Lost Cause." The racism in the film was simply appalling. The author is very good at narrating the stories of both men and I highly recommend this one.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    Better than a three but not quite a hour star book. Wonderfully researched and complete, the book lacked a build in tension of other writers of historical non-fiction, but it provided clear concise characterization of both Trotter and Griffith, positives and minuses. A fascinating read all around.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Grenita

    Quite a read. Paired well with the WW1 exhibit that my local museum had on display in August.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Richard Behrens

    A chance discovery of this book in my local library led me on a three week jag of study about D.W. Griffith and the making of The Birth of a Nation, one of the most controversial films ever made. How can a film that characterizes African Americans as sub-human, portrays them as raping white woman and committing bestial acts of terrorism against the white community, and salute the Ku Klux Klans as the noble knights in service to peace, order and prosperity, still be regarded as a masterpiece of A A chance discovery of this book in my local library led me on a three week jag of study about D.W. Griffith and the making of The Birth of a Nation, one of the most controversial films ever made. How can a film that characterizes African Americans as sub-human, portrays them as raping white woman and committing bestial acts of terrorism against the white community, and salute the Ku Klux Klans as the noble knights in service to peace, order and prosperity, still be regarded as a masterpiece of American cinema and accept into the National Film Registry with honor and reverence? Well, it wasn't easy. Griffith's deeply racist film stands as a celluloid elephant in our proverbial room. No doubt one of the greatest films made previously to Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind (another film with racist baggage), it is not ignoble. One cannot pretend it doesn't exist, especially if you are a critic, a film historian, social historian or African American. The release of this film was accompanied by organized protests, riots and legal attempts to destroy it, as chronicled brilliantly in Dick Lehr's book. This book not only puts the film in context of American history, the story of the growth of the film industry, and the political climate at the time, it examines the role of African Americans in American society at the dawn of the First World War War when the film was released. It does a great job explaining what the film really meant to both blacks and whites, and how it stirred everyone from the Mayor of Boston to President Woodrow Wilson to confront their own limitations and prejudices in judging the film. Wilson called the movie "telling history with lightning" and the Mayor of Boston (a man notorious for banning anything that remotely struck him as smutty or licentious) ordered only two small cuts in the film that Griffith subsequently didn't even make. The film continues to dazzle, inflame and divide. I just watched it for the first time in twenty years and I have to say I was dazzled and inflamed and divided. The Civil War battles, the assassination of Lincoln, the surrender of Lee to Grant, etc. all impress deeply as significant and historical film making, our modern cinema in the making. The rest, well...watch it with both eyes open, be prepared to see a story told by a southern racist, and try to put things in as much context as you can. It really is a stunning film and like any good prisoner on probation, can enjoy its freedom as long as it keeps it's place and doesn't harm anyone.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    The Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest cinematic achievements in film. It was a the first long format film to be made in the United States and introduced many film techniques and technology that wasn't used at the time. The use of film to tell such a complex story, editing to put the story together, and camera shots are quite innovative. It was also a film to retell the story of the Civil War as the director and author of the teleplay felt it was, white Southerners had been wronged and har The Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest cinematic achievements in film. It was a the first long format film to be made in the United States and introduced many film techniques and technology that wasn't used at the time. The use of film to tell such a complex story, editing to put the story together, and camera shots are quite innovative. It was also a film to retell the story of the Civil War as the director and author of the teleplay felt it was, white Southerners had been wronged and harmed in the war and Negroes had been given too much power and set free to bully and abuse their former masters. This idea was common by 1914 when the film appeared, but the film was so powerful and popular that the Klan experienced a resurgence after being dissolved since the 1880s. The author of the book, The Clansman, which The Birth of a Nation was based on saw it as a way to influence Northern white men into beliefs white Southern men held. The director, D.W. Griffith, held similar views but was not a publicity hound like Dixon who often advertised his views. William Monroe Trotter, an African-American journalist who published his own newspaper chose not to be as accommodating as other black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. Horrified at what he saw as an appalling film that would cause further setbacks to the progress of African-Americans in the US, he led fights to have the movie banned from places such as Boston due to morals charges, which were common arguments concerning films in those days. He sought support from the courts and President Wilson who supported separate but equal laws and whose administration actually expanded the laws to places other than train cars. Trotter actually won in the Boston courts but it was a hollow victory as the movie was still shown and law enforcement didn't care to halt showings. The movie was hailed as a masterpiece of film making and there were very few negative reviews. The two men who made the film saw it as a way to expand Southern racist views into the North and undo laws that protected Negroes from discrimination. The book is not the easiest non-fiction book to read through, it is a bit dense but I learned much more about this film. A great film in terms of history and film making but made with a nefarious purpose in mind, to sway people into greater racists views and promote hatred among Americans. Film was to be the new medium to be feared and hated as much as it was loved and adored.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Francis

    Film critics and historians face a conundrum with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). It’s inarguably a milestone in cinema, a technological and artistic marvel that was literally the first blockbuster… and it’s also aggressively racist. As a Civil War/Reconstruction epic, themes include black men as predatory toward white women, the Ku Klux Klan as day-saving heroes, and the dangers of giving the Negro (parlance of the times) any power or even rights. Hence, the aforementioned conun Film critics and historians face a conundrum with D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). It’s inarguably a milestone in cinema, a technological and artistic marvel that was literally the first blockbuster… and it’s also aggressively racist. As a Civil War/Reconstruction epic, themes include black men as predatory toward white women, the Ku Klux Klan as day-saving heroes, and the dangers of giving the Negro (parlance of the times) any power or even rights. Hence, the aforementioned conundrum: To acknowledge Birth’s place in film history, or demur because of its content? On one hand, by any objective metric it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. On the other, its subject matter is so vile that even Griffith rebuffed the film decades later. Answer: most critics have copped out by replacing “Birth” with Griffith’s subsequent feature, “Intolerance” (The AFI’s top 100 included “Birth” in their inaugural 1998 list, for instance, but now instead names “Intolerance”)… it’s enough to make one wonder if future generations of film students will even know “The Birth of a Nation” existed. So, yes, the story of “The Birth of a Nation” is a fascinating one. But even for those who think they know said story, Dick Lehr puts a new spin on it with “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” Lehr – a well-known Boston journalist and expert on Whitey Bulger – focuses his narrative not only on Griffith and his film, but also on Monroe Trotter, a black civil-rights agitator who was such an firebrand that his two biggest targets were President Woodrow Wilson and better-known black activist Booker T. Washington… that is, until Griffith and crew brought their movie to Boston. To go further would spoil a narrative that has a surprising bit of suspense. But suffice it to say, Lehr’s book is entertaining, informative and brings up such big-timey questions as what should and shouldn’t be censored in American culture, and just what it means to crusade for a cause, i.e., when is it okay to abandon principles in pursuit of the ultimate goal?

  17. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    This book is mainly about the effort, led by civil rights activist Monroe Trotter, to prevent the showing of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in Boston in 1915. The book starts very slowly; there are too many pages devoted to mini-biographies of Trotter's and Griffith's fathers. But once the main story finally gets going the book gets a lot more interesting. The Birth of a Nation is a very important, and very problematic, part of American movie history. It's the first "blockbuster" film, mad This book is mainly about the effort, led by civil rights activist Monroe Trotter, to prevent the showing of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in Boston in 1915. The book starts very slowly; there are too many pages devoted to mini-biographies of Trotter's and Griffith's fathers. But once the main story finally gets going the book gets a lot more interesting. The Birth of a Nation is a very important, and very problematic, part of American movie history. It's the first "blockbuster" film, made by a very talented but terribly misguided filmmaker. It's also appallingly racist, and that was as apparent to many (but not enough) viewers in 1915 as it is a hundred years later. A key difference is that while viewers of today see the movie as dated, absurd, and insulting, to black Americans of 1915 the stereotypes it conveyed were actually dangerous. There were legitimate fears that it could encourage anything from additional discrimination to actual lynchings. The fight against the movie was about much more than "political correctness." I was hoping that the book would focus more on the movie itself, the story and images that appear on the screen as well as the making of the movie. But that's not what this book turned out to be about, and that's okay. I'd still like to find such a book, although it's possible that the chapters about The Birth of a Nation in D.W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel are the next best thing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Gordon

    Lately, I've been trying to read up on the period between the Civil War and WWI, a period that my US History teacher did not cover at all. This brush up between Monroe Trotter, the black activist editor of the Guardian) and D. W. Griffith, the visionary director who began modern cinema, exposes America at its best and worst. Trotter and Griffith create the discussion of the defeat of Reconstruction that needed so badly to be done. Although voices like Ida B. Wells were loud in their denunciation Lately, I've been trying to read up on the period between the Civil War and WWI, a period that my US History teacher did not cover at all. This brush up between Monroe Trotter, the black activist editor of the Guardian) and D. W. Griffith, the visionary director who began modern cinema, exposes America at its best and worst. Trotter and Griffith create the discussion of the defeat of Reconstruction that needed so badly to be done. Although voices like Ida B. Wells were loud in their denunciation of lynching, the Southern pastime of 1870-1930, most people went about their business until Griffith wisely played to the lowest beliefs of the white public (not just the South) by depicting the evil blacks of the Reconstruction South as intent on little beside drinking and rape. The gruesome Gus who hulkingly drives the heroine over a cliff is played by a white man in black face. None of this bothered the white Americans of 1915, least of all our delightfully deceitful president, Woodrow Wilson. If you want to understand Mencken's dismissal of him as a Christian cad, read this book. The creativity of Griffith, his birthing of the modern film with wide shots and closes ups, his reverence for spectacle , all are what sets our movies above those of other countries, but his racism and machiavellian manipulation of the press, also are typical of America. Monroe Trotter, a man who fails striving nobly is depicted in full as well. We are the country that spawned both men. We also destroyed Trotter's dream of racial equality.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Maureen M

    I wrote this review for the newspaper D.W. Griffith saw his movie “Birth of a Nation” as “the true story” of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Monroe Trotter saw its portrayal of leering men in blackface and “heroic” Ku Klux Klansmen as the worst form of rewriting history. Their confrontation is retold in riveting fashion in “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” Griffith, son of a Confederate soldier, and Monroe Trotter, I wrote this review for the newspaper D.W. Griffith saw his movie “Birth of a Nation” as “the true story” of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Monroe Trotter saw its portrayal of leering men in blackface and “heroic” Ku Klux Klansmen as the worst form of rewriting history. Their confrontation is retold in riveting fashion in “The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” Griffith, son of a Confederate soldier, and Monroe Trotter, son of a black Union soldier, squared off over several intense weeks in Boston in 1915. Protesters converged on the Tremont Theatre. Activists raced from the courthouse to the statehouse to try to block the first-of-its kind feature film. Lehr portrays the self-serving Griffith and the self-righteous Trotter in all their glaring imperfection. The book takes us back to when the Civil War’s scars were fresh and the tone of civil rights was evolving from the deference of Booker T. Washington to the defiance of W.E.B. Dubois. Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge play pivotal cameo roles. One hundred years later, the end is known, but Lehr’s account of how it got to that end makes for a fascinating read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Paul Brandel

    I'm at ppg. 134 out of 298.Very good read so far,the author alternates the chapters about D W Griffith and Monroe Trotter.I can see Hollywood making a fine film from this book.They are making a movie from the author's other book about Whitey Bulger starring Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch,who will play Whitey's brother Bob. I finished this book last month and it was a very fine read.Learned alot about Griffith and Monroe Trotter.Trotter was a crusading editor of a Boston civil rights newspa I'm at ppg. 134 out of 298.Very good read so far,the author alternates the chapters about D W Griffith and Monroe Trotter.I can see Hollywood making a fine film from this book.They are making a movie from the author's other book about Whitey Bulger starring Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch,who will play Whitey's brother Bob. I finished this book last month and it was a very fine read.Learned alot about Griffith and Monroe Trotter.Trotter was a crusading editor of a Boston civil rights newspaper.It was he who spearheaded the boycott against the racist film,The Birth of a Nation.The author Dick Lehr does an expert job of recreating early 20th century race relations America.

  21. 5 out of 5

    L.

    Passable but pedestrian overview of the agitation in Boston against "The Birth of a Nation". More of interest to those studying first amendment rights or internecine civil rights squabbles than film history, though in an era of revived & increasingly broad/irrational "hate speech" codes it is perhaps more appropriate and relevant to focus on that issue, although the book doesn't dwell much in depth about any of the real conflicts, mostly confining itself to reporting reactions from various newsp Passable but pedestrian overview of the agitation in Boston against "The Birth of a Nation". More of interest to those studying first amendment rights or internecine civil rights squabbles than film history, though in an era of revived & increasingly broad/irrational "hate speech" codes it is perhaps more appropriate and relevant to focus on that issue, although the book doesn't dwell much in depth about any of the real conflicts, mostly confining itself to reporting reactions from various newspapers of the era.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Fraser Sherman

    If you know nothing about DW Griffith's infamous Lost Cause film Birth of a Nation and the black protests against it, this is a good book that will fill you in on the details. I'm more familiar than average, which may be why this didn't really click with me; it may also be that it's written with a kind of bland seriousness that never engaged me. If you know nothing about DW Griffith's infamous Lost Cause film Birth of a Nation and the black protests against it, this is a good book that will fill you in on the details. I'm more familiar than average, which may be why this didn't really click with me; it may also be that it's written with a kind of bland seriousness that never engaged me.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Jones

    Very interesting book. I was aware of the film but not the fight that Monroe Trotter and the NAACP put up to stop it from being shown in Boston. Good stuff; recommended read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Fran

  25. 4 out of 5

    TINA MCCUSKER

  26. 4 out of 5

    patricia kennedy

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marshall

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joel

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

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