Birth of an Answer
Attucks Theater, September 18, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge
There was a sold-out house at the historic Attucks Theater September 18 for Within Our Gates, a multimedia presentation celebrating 100 years of African American creative and critical response to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation, an epic glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The highlights of the evening were the short film Our Nation, filmed in 2015, and the 1919 feature-length silent film by African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, Within Our Gates, with the world premiere of a new, original score by acclaimed composer Adolphus Hailstork, performed live, under conductor Michael Morgan. It was what the late Ed Sullivan would have rightly called “a rilly big shew.”
Our Nation, produced by the Old Dominion University Film Program and directed by Derrick Borte, focuses on Douglas, a young boy who wants to see Birth of a Nation because it’s supposed to be the “greatest film ever made.” His mother tells him they won’t let him into the all-white theatre even if he has his nickel. At the theatre, an usher turns him away, along with the Chinese couple behind him. Behind the theatre, the projectionist tries to discourage him, but lets the boy see the film from the projectionist’s booth. Long before the film ends, Douglas leaves without a word, stunned by the film’s stereotypes and vicious racism. He makes his way to the black theatre, where he and his friends watch the movie playing there—and sitting behind them are the Chinese couple. Filmed at recognizable local locations—the streets of Norfolk, the Commodore and Wells Theatres, the Moses Myers House—the short movie took the audience back 100 years, preparing them for Micheaux’s 1919 film.
(Connor Berry, who played the young Douglas with simplicity and grace, was in the audience at the Attucks and received a hearty ovation.)
Within Our Gates was written and directed by pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux; all prints were thought lost for decades, until a Spanish-titled version was discovered in 1970. In this lovingly restored version, unusual titles include the names of those who play the characters in a scene. Hailstork’s original score is not the usual silent film accompaniment but, rather, an evocation of the thoughts, aspirations, fears and dreams of the characters. It begins with deep, rich, questioning cellos, as Sylvia, played by Evelyn Preer, is betrayed by a friend, and begins her odyssey to the North to raise money for a rural school for poor black children, during which she finds true love, respect from a rich Boston woman, and the truth about her family’s tragic past.
As Sylvia meets the Rev. Jacobs and his sister, whose school is running out of funds, the I. Sherman Greene Chorale’s beautiful choral sound swells up wordlessly in an evocation of hope. Sylvia decides to seek funds up North, and light busy strings underscore her determination—and her naiveté. Her purse is stolen; in saving a child, she’s run over by Mrs. Warwick’s car. The music spins out the choral refrain, “Children learning, learning, learning. . . ,” swelling into a chorus of “O, thank you, God!” While Sylvia recovers from the accident, a Southern-born woman tries to convince Mrs. Warwick not to waste money educating Negroes; a lovely floating tone leads the chorus into the reprise of “Children learning, learning, learning” as Mrs. Warwick declares she’ll give not 5 thousand but 50 thousand to the school!
The audience learns that Sylvia’s adoptive father was framed for a landowner’s murder. The chorus rises up in waves of wordless agony, and as the family tries to escape into the swamps, the chorus urges, “Run away! Run away!” with dramatic orchestral sweeps. The landowner’s tattletale servant Efrem is lynched too—
“because he’s there.” The actual lynching of Sylvia’s parents is startlingly suggested by Micheaux’s closeup of a crossbeam with two ropes hanging from it—an image that etches itself on the audience’s mind. Meanwhile, Sylvia is assaulted and nearly raped by the landowner’s brother—she’s spared only when he realizes he’s her father! Eventually Sylvia finds true love with the doctor she met in the North, and they marry.
It’s a complicated story whose narrative can be hard to follow at times, but it’s well worth the effort. Hailstork’s superb score interweaves Sylvia’s theme with the chorus’s yearning spirituals, beautifully played by the Harlem Quartet’s Ilmar Gavrilan, Melissa White, Jaime Amado and Felix Umansky, with guest instrumentalists Jennifer Arnold, Jocelyn Demita Butler and Eric Thompson III. The I. Sherman Greene Chorale, directed by Elizabeth Eccles, brought out all of the music’s emotions, and soloists Karen E. Lee and James L. Thomas were simply stunning.
Co-sponsors of this remarkable event were Old Dominion University, the ODU Black Alumni Chapter, the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, the Norfolk Chamber Consort, the Virginia Arts Festival, and WHRO Public Media.
This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”
Adolphus Hailstork's Original Score for Silent Film Classic
Within Our Gates (1919)
Attucks Theater, September 18, 2015; Chandler Hall, September 21, 2015
Review by John Campbell
It has been 100 years since the film Birth of a Nation came to movie screens across America. Director D.W. Griffith based the story of this Civil War epic on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. Though Griffith virtually invented the basics of film grammar, creating realistic interactions between male and female stars, masterful battle choreography and taking cinematography to new heights. The film upset viewers of good will because of the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the depiction of abuse of people of color.
At the restored, historic Attucks Theater, Birth of an Answer celebrated African American creative responses to Griffith's film. Four years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation (BOAN), in 1919 or 1920, black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux brought out his film Within Our Gates. Commercial entertainment and presenting a point of view were goals of both filmmakers.
Two locally-created world premieres were the most entertaining parts of a very long evening. Within Our Gates was furnished a soundtrack by renowned local composer Dr. Adolphus Hailstork, performed by the Harlem Quartet (violins-Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, viola-Jamie Amador, cello-Matthew Zalkind), augmented by Jocelyn Butler, cello; Eric Thompson, double bass; Jen Arnold, viola; and the 36-member I. Sherman Greene Chorale, led by Music Director Elizabeth Eccles. Conductor Michael Morgan was successful in keeping the live sound synced with the film. Working frame by frame, Dr. Hailstork's score was composed to coordinate with the screen action. The music was occasionally beautiful but it was often jarring with edgy, unpleasant sounds to accompany harsh actions. A certain exhaustion set in as the confused, confusing and well-nigh unwatchable film reeled out. It was a movie for film specialists or historians, not a general audience. As much as possible, the film had been restored by the Smithsonian but it’s blurriness made it difficult to watch. This was especially true of the often unreadable text of the telegrams which were important to understanding the story.
Dr. Hailstork’s musical score, titled Within Our Gates (2015) deserves to be performed again with the film but with a clear, verbal prologue that introduces the characters and gives an outline of the plot—essential to bring viewers in. The musicians were excellent and usually coordinated well with the on-screen action.
It was not until the day after the performance that my online research helped me understand the plot and gain some insight into what film director Micheaux (1884-1951) was attempting to say about race relations and depictions of black lives in the U.S. in reply to Birth of a Nation.
Micheaux echoed themes of cultural stereotypes found in BOAN and added some of his own. In response to Griffith’s showing black men as sexual predators victimizing white women, Micheaux answered with a white man attempting to rape his film’s heroine, Sylvia. The rapist backs away when he discovers a scar on her chest and realizes that she is his own daughter by an un-named black woman. The lynching of the couple who raised Sylvia was an echo of KKK activity in BOAN.
Sylvia is a committed educator who goes to Boston to raise money to keep a Southern black school open. Both she and the schoolmaster, and a Boston doctor— her eventual love interest—are middle-class blacks, well dressed, well spoken and above reproach. A theme of patriotic black soldiers who fought with Theodore Roosevelt is woven into a story of Sylvia’s deceitful cousin who attempts to steal her WWI soldier boyfriend. Other characters are the criminal Larry, the lackey Efrem who is also lynched and Old Ned, a preacher who justifies the post Civil War racial system as God’s ordained plan but in private is repulsed by his own behavior. All of these are stock characters supporting stereotypes of how black people behave.
After the scenes of near-rape and lynching, the wedding at the end made little impact on this viewer. The subplot of the white philanthropist who, after being lectured at length by her rich, Southern white, bigoted friend, offers us a moment of triumph when she decides to increase the $5000 she has offered Sylvia to $50,000. Another high point was Sylvia’s young brother’s escape from the lynch mob that killed their adoptive parents by stealing a horse and riding away.
Shown before Within Our Gates the other premiere was a charming, though brief, film titled Our Nation (2015) by Derrick Borte, director with David P. Mallin, screenwriter and director of photography, both of Old Dominion University. Filmed at local historic sites in Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, it is the story of a young black boy who believes the hype for BOAN and insists on seeing it. Discouraged by his protective mother, he is turned away from the whites only theater,but makes friends with the black projectionist who allows him to watch as much as he can stand until he walks away in disgust. The film presumes a level of sophistication and entitlement that children of whatever color would not presume in 1915, though the work has a good heart.
In the hagiographic,“Inside the Actors Studio” style third segment listed as a “Multigenerational panel discussion” by black filmmakers, we saw clips of each director’s work. Among many other accomplishments, moderator Mike Sargent is a film critic and the first African American host ever of a TV film review show. He did not ask his panelists probing questions.
Emmy-nominated actor, director and producer Tim Reid, who grew up a few blocks from the Attucks Theater, stressed that film reaches the most and says the most of any medium that tells stories. The trailer for his film Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (1995) offers the story of an orphaned boy in Mississippi in the 1950s. Poor wages and white bigotry are challenges his positive and loving family work through. Reid roundly condemned BOAN, comparing it to films made by Hitler’s propaganda machine.
Positive images of black families was Michael Swanson’s focus. He is an Emmy winning producer and Hollywood studio executive and with his director wife Christine Swanson makes movies that offer stories of romance and faith.
Eighty-three year old Melvin van Peebles was lionized for his pioneering career as actor and filmmaker. His film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a highly entertaining 1971 movie. His film is about a pimp who kills two white policemen who beat-up a black militant. Using his street-wise survival skills, the killer evades capture and escapes to Mexico. Anger and revenge and standing up to “the man” were a necessary step but certainly a departure from the evening’s theme of positive images of blacks in American film.
Saving the best for last, veteran of independent film and video, Zeinabu Irene Davis, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, offered a fine critique of the evening’s main event, the film Within Our Gates. She spoke about how it is jam-packed with racial stereotypes, misogyny, rape, religion and violence. The most memorable statement of the evening was Ms. Davis’ contrasting of how in 1915 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arranged a special showing of BOAN in the White House and in 2015 President Obama arranged a showing of Selma!
Realistically this experience could have filled a weekend conference on film. Crammed into a single evening, it was a challenge to sit through to its end. Usually I find NCC concerts leave me exhilarated —on a musical high from over two hours of live and varied chamber music. Instead we had 78 minutes of music during the film plus the bonus of the I. Sherman Chorale performing in the lobby as we entered the theater and during the first intermission. I don’t doubt the good (even noble) intentions of everyone involved but the reality didn’t add up to a satisfying evening. Our party left early (at 11:00 pm) weary and somewhat confused as to why this was a Norfolk Chamber Consort event.
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