Writer to discuss controversial film ‘Birth of a Nation'

The University of South Carolina’s History Center will host writer and journalism professor Dick Lehr Sept. 26–27 for an in-depth look at the controversial 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” and events surrounding its release and impact. Lehr’s visit, which will include a public talk and seminar, is part of the History Center’s continued commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction and exploration of race relations.

Lehr, a professor at Boston University and former reporter for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team, wrote the book “The Birth of Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War.” The book revolves around the battle between filmmaker and cinematic innovator D.W. Griffith and Monroe Trotter, a Boston newspaper editor and African-American activist who tried to stop the controversial and racist film from being shown.

Set in South Carolina before and after the Civil War, the propaganda film fueled racial hatred and civil rights protests. Although faded, its shadow on race relations remains today.

Events featuring Lehr include:

  • Public talk, 7 p.m., Sept. 26, at the Nickelodeon Theater (first-come, first-served seating); and
  • Seminar discussion, 4 p.m., Sept. 27, Room 217 in the university’s Gambrell Hall.

The events are free and open to the public. While at the university, Lehr also will speak to students in civil rights history and investigative journalism classes.

Lehr reported for the Boston Globe from 1985 to 2003. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won numerous regional and national journalism awards. His book about “Birth of a Nation” is the basis for the PBS documentary, “With All Thy Might: The Battle over 'Birth of a Nation,' ” which is in production. He has written five books, including “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal,” a New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner that was adapted into a movie starring Johnny Depp.

In a Boston University story, Lehr said his interest in “Birth of a Nation” initially was sparked by a showing of the film at a Ku Klux Klan recruitment meeting that he infiltrated as a young journalist in the 1970s. It was further fueled at the discovery of Trotter’s protest to censor the film when it debuted.

“I saw that in 1915, when ‘Birth of a Nation’ came out, Trotter was at the forefront of what turned out to be this amazing protest in Boston against [it] that went on for over three months. The other complication that I think is fascinating is how could a newspaperman, a First Amendment guy, [seek to] limit the expression of speech?” Lehr said. 

When it was released, “Birth of a Nation” was unlike any film seen before. Lehr calls it the original blockbuster, gripping for its revolutionary cinematic techniques such as close-ups and zooming in on faces. And despite protests, the controversial film, with its blatant racist and revolting depiction of African-Americans and glorification of white supremacy and the KKK, was shown in major cities nationwide.

It was also the first film screened in the White House. While President Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in Columbia, never shared his thoughts on “Birth of a Nation,” the film’s producer didn’t hesitate to promote the inaugural White House film screening as an endorsement.

Historian and History Center director Patricia Sullivan says Lehr’s book and talks provide South Carolinians an opportunity to consider the legacy of the film, discuss race, civil rights, protest and censorship while deepening the public understanding of Reconstruction.

“Dick Lehr’s talks are a valuable continuation of the conversation that began this spring around the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction. Revisiting the impact of ‘Birth of a Nation’ and the important events of protest that surrounded the film are relevant to the ongoing struggles around race and democracy and citizenship and rights that are taking place in communities throughout our state and nation today,” Sullivan says.

Lehr’s visit is co-sponsored by the History Center in the College of Arts and Sciences and the university’s College of Information and Communications with support from the Historic Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home and The Nickelodeon Theater.

The Nickelodeon Theater will follow up Dick Lehr’s presentation with an Oct. 7 showing of a new film about literate slave and preacher Nat Turner; the film also is titled, “Birth of a Nation.”

Learn more

For more information about Lehr’s talks, visit the History Center. Visit Historic Columbia for information about tours of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home.

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