Jeff Labrecque interviews World War Z author Max Brooks in Entertainment Weekly about his new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. The new book, about a black infantry unit during World War I, looks great. One moment in the interview caught our eye, in connection to some research we’ve done for The Rosenwald Schools.
You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.
I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.
Despite its overtly racist themes and imagery, the release of Birth of a Nation (arguably the first significant feature-length film) was indeed a major event. We learned, however, that in addition to playing to some white viewers’ racism (and even inciting racial violence in some cases), the film also galvanized the nascent NAACP. The film provided them with a nationwide target to organize against and boycott, which helped new organization find its footing and become one of the major advocacy groups for minority rights in American history. We interviewed historian David Levering Lewis about the White House screening of Birth of a Nation and its effect on the NAACP.
You can read the complete interview at Entertainment Weekly.