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“HISTORICAL PRESENTATION” OR “LIBEL TO THE RACE”?: CENSORSHIP AND THE BIRTH OF A NATION

  • Jennifer Fronc (a1)
Extract

On April 9, 1915, the fiftieth anniversary of General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, The Birth of a Nation opened in Boston. Audience members were “prepared for the unusual” the moment they entered the Tremont Theatre. After “a young man in evening dress and a silk hat” took tickets, “two young women in flounced hoop skirts and with long curls … ma[d]e a sort of graceful minuet bow, and hand[ed] you a program.” While “soldiers ‘on guard’ in the Civil War uniforms of the North and South” flanked the aisles, another costumed young woman “escort[ed] you to your seat.” As the film projector flickered to life, a title card issued an important caveat to the audience: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction period and is not meant to reflect in any way upon any race or people of today.” D. W. Griffith did not write this title card; rather, the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures (NBC) inserted it to fend off protestors and signal its commitment to filmmakers’ First Amendment rights.

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email: jfronc@history.umass.edu
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NOTES

1 Apr. 9, 1915, Boston Daily Globe.

2 Apr. 10, 1915, Boston Daily Globe.

3 Ibid.

4 Barrett, Wilton A., “The Work of the National Board of Review,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 128 (1926): 175.

5 John Collier, “The Real Meaning of the Proposed City Ordinance for Motion Picture Commissions,” Folder: “Subjects Papers: State censorship—Subject Indices,” Box 172, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Hereafter NBRMP.

6 “The Standards of the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures,” pamphlet, revised in May 1914, Folder: “Photographic parlantes—Policies and Standards of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures,” Box 171, NBRMP.

7 Orrin G. Cocks, “The Position of the National Board on the Local Regulation of Films Throughout the Country,” n.d., Folder: “Subjects Papers: State censorship,” Box 172, NBRMP.

8 W. D. McGuire to James Bronson Reynolds, Oct. 15 1914, Folder: “Committee Papers, Local Conditions Committee-National Religious Advisory Committee,” Box 126, NBRMP.

9 Trotter quoted in Stephen R. Fox, The Guardian of Boston: William Monroe Trotter (New York: Atheneum Press, 1971), 193.

10 Casey to McGuire, Apr. 5, 1915, Folder: “Mass., Abingdon-Boston, 1914–1918,” Box 56, NBRMP.

11 Ibid.

12 Wilton A. Barrett, Review Secretary, to Mrs. H. W. Lung, Secretary of the Seattle Board of Theater Censors, July 13, 1921, Folder “Washington, Seattle,” Box 79, NBRMP.

13 McGuire to Casey, Apr. 8, 1915, Folder: “Mass., Abingdon-Boston, 1914–1918,” Box 56, NBRMP.

14 “Standards,” NBRMP.

15 McGuire to Casey, Apr.8, 1915, Folder: “Mass., Abingdon-Boston, 1914–1918,” Box 56, NBRMP.

16 Apr. 8, 1915, Boston Globe.

17 Ibid.

18 Apr. 13, 1915, Boston Globe.

19 Ibid.

20 Apr. 18, 1915, Boston Sunday Globe.

21 Ibid.; Apr. 18, 1915, New York Times.

22 Apr. 18, 1915, Boston Sunday Globe.

23 Ibid.

24 Apr. 23, 1915, Boston Globe.

25 Chapter 348, “An Act Relative to Revoking and Suspending Licenses for Theatrical and Like Exhibitions in the City of Boston,” Special Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts (Boston: Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1915), 316–17.

26 Ibid.

27 June 13, 1915, New York Sun.

28 Ibid.

29 McGuire to J. C. McCarthy, Griffith Productions, Nov. 1, 1916, Folder: “Gray-Griffith,” Box 28, NBRMP; William A. Milligan, CPA, to W. D. McGuire, Dec. 26, 1916, “Suggestion for a Budget for 1917,” Folder: “Financial Records, Financial Statements, 1909–1944,” Box 127, NBRMP.

30 Theodore Mitchell to McGuire, Mar. 23, 1917, Folder: “Gray—Griffith,” Box 28, NBRMP.

31 McGuire to Casey, n.d., Folder: “Mass., Abingdon-Boston, 1914–1918,” Box 56, NBRMP.

32 Ira H. Carmen, Movies, Censorship, and the Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), 219.

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  • EISSN: 1943-3557
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