Birth of a Movement

Birth of a Movement

  • BY Susan Gray & Bestor Cram | IN Race & Ethnicity
    Premiered February 6, 2017

About the Film

A co-presentation with WNET/Thirteen. In 1915, Boston-based African American newspaper editor and activist William M. Trotter waged a battle against D.W. Griffith’s technically groundbreaking but notoriously Ku Klux Klan-friendly The Birth of a Nation, unleashing a fight that still rages today about race relations, media representation, and the power and influence of Hollywood. Birth of a Movement, based on Dick Lehr's book The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights, captures the backdrop to this prescient clash between human rights, freedom of speech, and a changing media landscape. MORE

Griffith originally titled his three-hour epic The Clansman, based on a novel and play of the same name, but changed it to The Birth of a Nation to reflect the director's belief his work gave the true story of America's "Reconstruction." Set during the Civil War, it was told from a point of view sympathetic to the Confederacy, and its portrayal of African American men was controversial even then, painting them as unintelligent and sexually aggressive, while members of the KKK were shown as valiant heroes protecting the innocent. (The film's release led to a spike in membership for the Klan.) Birth of a Nation was one of the first motion pictures screened at the White House, and white film audiences made it a box office hit, but in each city it traveled to it was also met with protests by African Americans, including by the newly formed NAACP which attempted to ban the film.

These protests were led by Trotter, the first African American Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University and editor of The Guardian newspaper. A Northern intellectual and contemporary of W.E.B. Dubois, Trotter was positioning himself as a leading voice in a fractured civil rights movement.

Birth of a Movement features interviews with Spike Lee (whose NYU student film The Answer was a response to Griffith’s film), Reginald Hudlin, DJ Spooky, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Dick Lehr, while exploring how Griffith’s film — long taught in film classes as an innovative work of genius — motivated generations of African American filmmakers and artists as they worked to reclaim their history and their onscreen image.

The Filmmakers

Bestor Cram began his career as an independent filmmaker in the early 1970s, following a tour of duty in Vietnam. He urgently needed to find a way to communicate to the hearts and minds of those who had already dismissed an opportunity for dialogue. It was a time of polarizing words sparked by horrific acts of violence that needed to be understood in the context of misleading lies, cover-ups, and nasty political discourse. It was a pivotal era of lost innocence, forever changing the way our nation saw itself — and how a young veteran saw himself. In 1982, he founded Northern Light Productions, where today he serves as the Creative Director. Cram has built Northern Light into one of the premiere documentary production companies in New England, dedicating himself to documentary film and museum work that strives to achieve a greater truth. Bestor has written, directed, produced, shot and executive produced over 30 films, including Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, Circus Without Borders, Beyond the Wall, and ANITA: Speak Truth to Power.

Susan Gray is the director of Broadcast Development at Northern Light Productions, where she has directed and produced numerous documentary features. An impassioned advocate for social justice, she strives to bring awareness to and spark conversations about serious issues plaguing our society. Her films include: Public Enemy, a documentary profiling four former members of the Black Panther Party, that was broadcast on Showtime, throughout Europe, and shown in major film festivals in competition around the world; and Across the River with Hedrick Smith, a PBS documentary exploring positive programs in Washington D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. She was awarded the Prix Europa, Europe’s highest documentary prize, for a PBS documentary she directed and wrote called Citizen Berlusconi about Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s prime minister. Her films have appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Arte, Showtime, in theaters, and television throughout the world. She co-produced Beyond the Wall, a story following an ex-convict’s journey through re-entry; Circus Without Borders, which follows a Guinean and an Inuit circus troupe struggling to overcome the legacy of colonialism in their countries; and Confessions of the Boston Strangler. Susan has an MA in journalism from Columbia University, with a concentration in documentary film, and an MA from the Johns Hopkins School for International Studies with a concentration in Social Change and Development. LESS

Film Credits

Executive Producers
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Sam Pollard

Susan Gray
Bestor Cram

Bestor Cram
Susan Gray
Matthew MacLean

Daniel Mooney

Kwyn Bader
Dick Lehr

Narrated by
Danny Glover

Associate Producers
Malaika Woluchem
Amy Shafer

Director of Archival Research
Rich Remsberg

Archival Researchers
Malaika Woluchem
Amy Shafer

Jesse Beecher
Bestor Cram
Dan Mooney

Sound Recordists
Matthew MacLean
Ben Avishai
Malaika Woluchem

Post-Production Supervisor
Daniel Mooney

Motion Graphics
Eric Carlsen
Daniel Mooney
Sean Ender
Jesse Beecher
James Carlsen

Graphics Assistants

Kara Mongell
Annie Melden

Original Music by
Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
John Kusiak

Additional Music
P. Andrew Willis
Kenny Kusiak

Audio Recording Facility
Edge Studio
Outpost Studios

Audio Post Facility
Modulus Studios

Advising Producer
Judy Richardson

Mark Elliot
Kerri Greenidge

Production Assistants
Heather Hoglund
Sarah Talon Sampieri
Jack Wall
Christina Wiech

Production Accountant

Nicky Kronenberg

Featuring (in alphabetical order)
Robert Bellinger
David Blight
Vince Brown
Dolita Cathcart
Jelani Cobb
Ira Gallen
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Herbert Haines
Reginald Hudlin
Spike Lee
Dick Lehr
Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
Charlie Musser
Charlene Regester
Ellen Scott
Melvyn Stokes

Nerissa Williams
Portland Hemlich

William Monroe Trotter – Michael Curry
Voice Actor - Franklin Smith

Shawn Brown
Cedric Crowe
Mugisua Fenzi
Jeff Gill
Eric F. Hardin
Harold Hunt
Colyon Johnson
Pamela Lambert
Michael Mascoll
Josh Olumide
Daniel Powell
George Powell
Brandon Ramos
D. Supreme Richardson
Dwight Thomas
Denise Williams
Karimah Williams
Michael Williams
Nerissa Williams-Scott
Arthur Williams III
Seneca Wilson

Archival Material Courtesy of

Bancroft Library
Billy Rose
Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection
Bostonian Society
Bridgeman Footage
Chicago Museum of History
Crisis Magazine
Doug Wilson
Duke University
Everett Collection
Gilder Lehrman
Gregory French
Harvard Archives
Historic Films
Howard Gottlieb Archival Center at Boston University
Ira Gallen
John E. Allen Archive
Kino Films
Library of Congress
Linotype the Film
Missouri History Museum
Motion Picture Mag
Museum of Modern Art
National Archives and Record Administration
New York Public Library
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Streamline Films, Inc.
University of California at Los Angeles
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Wisconsin Historical Society
WPA Film Library
Yale University

Additional Archival Footage by
Columbia Films
Metro-Goldwyn Meyer
Selznick International Pictures
Warner Bros.

Special Thanks
Amy Briamonte
Boston Light & Sound, Inc.
Christine Herbes-Sommers
Historical Association of Catawba County
Rick Malkames
Wendy Riseborough

For THIRTEEN Productions LLC

Executive Producer
Julie Anderson

Executive in Charge
Stephen Segaller

Fiscal Agent
Center for Independent Documentary

Licensed by ITVS

Funding Provided by
National Endowment for the Humanities
Ford Foundation I JustFilms
Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Birth of a Movement is a presentation of Northern Light Productions, in association with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET.

This program was produced by Northern Light Productions, which is solely responsible for its content.
© 2016 Northern Lights Motion Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.

How do you think both Griffith's film and the protests around it relate to current-day racial tensions? How would you teach and present Birth of a Nation to students today?


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How do you think both Griffith's film and the protests around it relate to current-day racial tensions? How would you teach and present Birth of a Nation to students today?