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"Birth of an Answer" Fills Attucks Theater With Critical Dialogue and Thought

Filmmaker Tim Reid denounced the racist movie "Birth of a Nation" as "one of the most horrible pieces of propaganda ever created" at Old Dominion University's "Birth of an Answer" multimedia event last Friday night at Norfolk's Attucks Theater.

Reid joined Emmy Award-winning producer Michael Swanson, independent filmmaker and college professor Zeinabu Davis, and legendary writer, actor and director Melvin Van Peebles to discuss the challenges of defeating stereotypes rooted in "Birth of a Nation" to tell African American stories in film and other media.

D.W. Griffith's film, based on the 1905 book "The Clansman" by Thomas Dixon Jr., is noted for its cinematic and storytelling innovations. But it depicts the Klu Klux Klan as heroic saviors of white virtue during reconstruction following the Civil War.

"That poison affects us to this day," Reid said.

Norfolk was the first Southern city to show the film, despite an ordinance that sought to prevent its screening. Council members attacked the film as "unfit to be displayed" and "calculated to arouse race hatred and possibly race riots." But the ordinance was overturned and the film screened.

The expert panel dialogue moderated by film critic Mike Sargent capped a provocative evening produced by Avi Santo, director of ODU's Institute for the Humanities, to explore 100 years of African American creative and critical response to "Birth of a Nation."

A crowd of 600 filled the Attucks for the program that began with the premier of the short feature film "Our Nation," written by assistant professor David Mallin, who heads ODU's film program, directed by alumnus and filmmaker Derrick Borte and starring New York-based actors.

The well-received fictional film, set in Norfolk in 1915 during the release of "Birth of a Nation," is the story of a young African American film buff named Douglas who wants to see what he has heard is "the greatest movie ever made," but is denied by his mother.

Determined, Douglas is turned away at the whites-only movie house before happening upon the theater's African American projectionist and begging him to sneak him inside.

A trailer for the movie can be found here.

That was followed by a screening of the silent African American classic by Oscar Micheaux "Within Our Gates," a 1919 response to "Birth of a Nation" that was accompanied by a new score composed by ODU's Eminent Scholar Adolphus Hailstork and performed by the Harlem Quartet and the I. Sherman Greene Chorale.

The panel discussion closed the evening that Old Dominion President John R. Broderick called important to the University and to Hampton Roads.

"It's very clear that Avi has done an incredible job of getting this program prepared, but more importantly having the community excited about it," Broderick said at an early evening reception at the Attucks Theater.

Broderick congratulated Santo for "Birth of an Answer" receiving ODU's first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And he praised the collaborative effort Santo organized with colleagues from Norfolk State University, Hampton University, Regent University, Christopher Newport University and Virginia Wesleyan College.

"I hope as we go forward that this is the standard for these types of projects in Hampton Roads," Broderick said. "The region should do a much better job celebrating the diversity and the quality of higher education we have in the area."

Swanson, who won an Emmy for his documentary "The Wayman Tisdale Story," said he was "humbled' to participate in the evening and was impressed by Santo's program that was part of Old Dominion's President's Lecture Series.

"I love that this is being done in a university setting," Swanson said. "We have to always talk about the past in an informed way, so that it's not repeated and so that students know from where we've come, especially in cinema."

Davis offered a reminder of that cultural journey during the panel discussion.

"To me, it's important to remember that in 1915, director D.W. Griffith took 'Birth of a Nation' to the White House to show then-President Woodrow Wilson," she said. "And in 2015, a woman named Ava DuVernay took her film 'Selma' to the White House to show President Barack Obama."

Santo said he is gratified by numerous compliments for "Birth of an Answer" that have flowed to him in person and through social media since Friday night.

"You have this vision in your head for well over a year, with so many moving pieces," Santo said. "But they all worked so well together and contributed to this amazing dialogue."

An encore performance of "Birth of An Answer" will take place Monday night at 8 o'clock on campus at the Chandler Recital Hall in the Diehn Center for the Performing Arts. The panel discussion for Monday's performance will feature Mallin and the composer Hailstork.

Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for students.

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