Frankie’s heart pounded as she and Susan sat down in the plush, velvet seats of the movie palace. The downtown Kansas City theater was crowded, even the upper balcony reserved for the Negro patrons. The segregation itself was no particular surprise; though most of Lawrence was integrated, Liberty Hall – where movies were shown – also had a separate balcony for colored people. The thing that surprised Frankie was the fact that so many black people wanted to see The Birth of a Nation, especially since the NAACP had called for a boycott. But then, she and Susan had been forbidden to see it as well, and it only made sense that Negroes would want to see it for the same reasons, that they would also be curious and want to think for themselves.
The house lights dimmed, a hush spread through the crowd, and Frankie’s heart stopped. When they’d boarded the train in Lawrence, Susan had said there was no turning back, but Frankie knew that this was really the point of no return. They’d planned so long and come so far to see what their parents and state had deemed to dangerous to see, and after they watched this film, Frankie knew they could never un-see it.
A light flickered and then spread out across the massive screen, and Frankie took Susan’s hand. Susan squeezed her fingers back as the opening credits rolled and the movie palace’s organist began the sweeping score. At Liberty Hall, the music was played on a tinny, upright piano, and more than ever before Frankie found herself overwhelmed by the bellowing depth of the palace organ. After what seemed like forever, the credits finally came to an end, and the opening title card flashed up on the screen:
The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.
Frankie tightened her grip on Susan’s hand.
No going back now.
When the screen went dark and the house lights came up, Frankie had one thought.
Everyone on all sides of the argument had been right.
In a way, The Birth of a Nation was everything everyone said. The film was the most advanced and breathtaking thing she’d ever seen. It was also, without a doubt, unrepentantly racially biased.
Movies had made Frankie laugh before, but they’d never made her cry, and she’d cried when two characters – former friends – met on opposite sides of a battle and died in each other’s arms. In the past, fake buildings and outlandish getups had made movies seem artificial, but The Birth of a Nation’s sweeping landscapes, intricate costumes, and thrilling special effects had convinced her every scene before her was actually real. And not only real, but connected to her – the way the camera had often narrowed and closed in on the actors’ faces had made her feel their pain and longing as if it were her own.
But at the same time, the movie’s story made her stomach turn. All the Negro characters – most of whom weren’t Negros at all but white actors in blackface – were portrayed as either stupid children or violent animals. They were happy as slaves and once they were freed they became like wild dogs – forcing white people out of voting booths at gunpoint, taking over every seat in the government, and marauding barefoot through the streets while drinking, destroying property, and hunting for white women. Frankie knew her parents and history teacher would have laughed, and at times she would have laughed herself if the idea that all Negroes were beasts – or that the Ku Klux Klan was a righteous band of heroes – wasn’t also sickening and terrifyingly wrong.
But she still wasn’t sure who was right about banning the film. The movie was incorrect and immoral, but was it dangerous? Was it something the public shouldn’t see, or that shouldn’t exist at all? Everyone was always talking about the American right to free speech. Did the people who made the film have the right to say whatever they wanted, or could there be some stories too wrong and hateful to be told?
She’d finally seen the movie, but she still didn’t have her answer.