by Artistic Affiliate Ella Mock
In 1914, Cabiria became the first film to be screened at the White House. An Italian-made cinematic epic, the first film to use tracking shots, it was a landmark in film artistry. The subject: the Roman empire at its glorious height, conquering the savages of North Africa, who were hell-bent on war and child sacrifice. Woodrow Wilson and his family lounged on the White House porch and watched in awe as the lights flickered past them across the lawn, entranced.
The following year, the first American-made film was shown at the White House. The thematic elements were devastatingly similar to the first. National pride, an empire torn, a beautiful white girl to rescue; the hearts of white viewers across the country were won. For many southerners, it was proof that they were the victims of the unjust demands of reparations. It reinforced black stereotypes, (like the faithful mammy and the sexual predator of white women, all played by white actors in blackface), and introduced new dangers; freedmen suppressing white voters and gaining political power. The threat was clear- democracy was on the line, and black people were the enemy.
1915, The Birth of a Nation made its debut. Millions of people saw the film, earning it a gross of about $90 million in today's money. In November of the same year the Ku Klux Klan redoubled with newfound support.
Also 1915, W. E. B. Dubois, co-founder of the NAACP, saw the need for a new tactic after protests of the film failed to dissuade white audiences. The Drama Committee was created, with a call for black playwrights. It was clear what art could do to a nation, and Dubois intended to use art to empower the oppressed. In August 1916, he wrote the article The Drama Among Black Folk in the NAACP newsletter, The Crisis.
"...a new and inner demand for Negro drama has arisen which is only partially satisfied by the vaudeville actors. Today in Harlem it is being curiously supplied by setting companies of colored actors to playing recent Broadway successes … The next step will undoubtedly be the slow growth of a new folk drama built around the actual experience of Negro American life.
...Then came my dream. It seemed to me that it might be possible with such a demonstration to get people interested in this development of Negro drama to teach on the one hand the colored people themselves the meaning of their history and their rich, emotional life through a new theatre, and on the other, to reveal the Negro to the white world as a human, feeling thing. "
That year, The Drama Committee produced Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké, the first fully staged play by a black playwright, and the first of many "anti-lynching plays". Grimké hoped to “touch the hearts of white mothers” with a work focusing on black children. She wrote on their innocence and humanity, as well as their great susceptibility to pain, living in a racist world.
While Rachel did not garner the popularity among white Americans that Birth of a Nation did, it laid the foundation for black playwrights, especially women, to start writing for the stage. Several plays followed in Grimké's path to expose the threats the black community continued to face post-emancipation. Mary P. Burrill, in Aftermath (1919) tells the story of a black WWI soldier who comes home to find his father has been lynched. In both of Georgia Douglas Johnson's works, Blue-Eyed Black Boy (1930) and Safe (1929), the focal point is a mother's consuming fear that her son will fall victim to the next lynch-mob.
In addition, black actors were no longer subjected to solely playing maids or minstrels, or performing black "versions" of white-written shows. Rachel gave black artists permission to tell their own stories, with their own words and their own bodies. This spark of artistic self-determination would further empower black artists into the Harlem Renaissance, when The Crisis became the launching point for some of the era's greatest writers.
The impact of art is generally unpredictable when it is first created. Looking back, it's clear that art has consistently served as a vehicle for identity and cultural expression; be it that of an empire or a mother. How the participants of history respond to their circumstances is invaluable knowledge. That those participants can tell their own story is pivotal to the future's ability to understand and atone.
Interviews and information on artistic happenings in Portland, maine