Title: Birth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century. Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington. He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.
The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915. Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners. The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.
The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film. Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common. While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.