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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Ambitious ODU Film Project Responds to “Birth of a Nation”

Avi Santo needed one more piece for his big plan.

To mark the centennial anniversary of the landmark film "Birth of a Nation" and explore African-American responses to its controversial 1915 release, Santo, director of Old Dominion's Institute of Humanities, arranged for an inspirational evening of film, expert commentary and new music.

But it dawned on him that something was missing from the program dubbed "Birth of an Answer:" ODU's own singular response.

Thus was born what Santo calls ODU's most ambitious short film project ever - "Our Nation." How ambitious? The script was written by David Mallin, head of ODU's film department; co-produced by Mallin and Monty Ross, Spike Lee's long-time co-producer; and directed by 1991 University alumnus Derrick Borte, who has directed and produced full-length Hollywood features.

Additionally, the film - which will debut Sept. 18 to kick off Santo's "Birth of an Answer" at Norfolk's Attucks Theatre - stars veterans of Broadway, film and television. The projected 10-minute film was shot in four days.

"We started out thinking about what we could do that allowed for a Hampton Roads perspective on national culture," said Santo, who oversaw filming this month in downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth. "We really wanted to shine a light on this. David produced something that is very eloquent."

Students in Mallin's "Advanced Filmmaking" class participated as well in support roles. As Borte watched his actors on a monitor shoot a scene in an alley outside the Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk, script supervisor Danyella Jones, an ODU senior, sat beside him, staring as intently.

"I'm more of a screen writer, but I do like script supervising," Jones said. "I like to make sure all the little details are taken care of. "

Santo and an advisory committee sweated details more than a year ago at their initial meeting for "Birth of an Answer." As Humanities Institute director, Santo seeks opportunities to engage audiences beyond the campus in arts and popular culture.

That's the spirit in which "Birth of an Answer" was conceived. Santo was reminded that organized efforts to block screenings of "Birth of a Nation" in various cities - including an unsuccessful bid in Norfolk - met the film's release in March of 1915.

D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic remains famous for innovative film-making techniques, but notorious for its racist depictions.

"Whatever the reaction was at the time, I'm not at all surprised," said veteran stage actor Derrick Baskin, 39, who plays a projectionist who shows "Birth of a Nation." "It's some heavy subject matter."

Urged by Santo to write a fictional script portraying Norfolk's response to "Birth of a Nation," Mallin created the tale of Douglas, a young African-American boy enthralled by the spectacle of "Birth of a Nation," and the theater projectionist he befriends as he tries to get in to see the movie.

"David came up with a surprisingly sophisticated story that uses very genuine human emotions," Santo said. "At its heart, it's much more a movie about the universal experience of wanting to go to the movies than it is a movie about racism.

"All of us have those memories of wanting to go see 'Star Wars' or whatever," Santo continued. "It was so important; we couldn't go to school the next day because we wouldn't know what people were talking about. That kind of story resonates."

Mallin said he intended the script to dovetail with the rest of the "Birth of an Answer" event. The premier of "Our Nation" will precede a screening of Oscar Micheaux's 1920 film "Within Our Gates," considered a direct African-American response to Griffith's movie.

Santo has enlisted Adolphus Hailstork, ODU music professor and Eminent Scholar, to compose a new score to accompany "Within Our Gates." It will be performed by members of the I. Sherman Greene Chorale and directed by Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

Part of ODU's "President's Lecture Series," the evening will conclude with a multi-generational panel discussion featuring Stephanie Allain Bray, a film producer and former studio executive; Emmy-nominated actor Tim Reid; film critic Mike Sargent; and Melvin Van Peebles, a founding father of modern African-American film and theater.

"I hope this is not the last project we'll do of this scale," Santo said. "This came out of a very specific project, but the networks that develop around something like this have a lot of possibilities."

That network is what lured Borte. Director of the well-received 2009 dark comedy "The Joneses" that stars Demi Moore and David Duchovny, Borte was raised and still resides in Virginia Beach. He said he jumped at the opportunity when Mallin asked him to direct "Our Nation."

"Any time I get to stay home and work, I take it," Borte, who holds a bachelor of fine arts in painting from the University, said with a smile. "But I'm thankful David wanted me involved. I loved his script. It just seemed like a very worthwhile endeavor."

Borte and Mallin also enlisted a top independent casting director, Erica Arvold, to sort through about 1,100 submissions for the film's few speaking roles.

"You want to be proud of the work you're doing and not have to make lemonade out of lemons," said Baskin, who lives in New York City. "This read very smoothly; it tells such a great story in such a short amount of time. It's just something you want to be part of."

Joining Baskin ("Law and Order: SVU") as principal actors are Connor Berry ("The Little Rascals Save the Day") as Douglas and Marsha Stephanie Blake ("Django Unchained," "Orange is the New Black") as Douglas' mother, Margaret.

The project, which seeks crowd-source funding for post-production work, is supported by ODU's Office of the President and the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, as well as grants from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.

"My ideal concept is that we would be able to do something like this every year," said Mallin, also the film's director of photography, who said he hopes to screen "Our Nation" at other film festivals following its September premier.

"We're working toward making that happen."

More information about "Birth of an Answer" and the film "Our Nation" is available at the film's Facebook page.

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