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Emerson Gallery to Present Series of Major Films on African Americans

By staff  |  Contact staff
Posted January 12, 1997
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In conjunction with the exhibition The Buffalo Soldier: The African American Soldier in the U.S. Army, 1866 - 1912, Hamilton College's Emerson Gallery will present a series of three remarkable films that offer broadly different perceptions of African Americans. Both the exhibition and the films are free and open to the public. All three films will be presented in Kirner-Johnson Auditorium on the campus of Hamilton College.

Birth of a Nation, USA, D.W. Griffith, 1915, 159 minutes -- January 21, 7:30 p.m.

A landmark in film narrative technique and an essential document of American cultural history, Birth of a Nation is also a deeply racist portrait of the post-Civil War South. Based on a luridly racist play, the notorious Reconstruction melodrama, The Clansman, the film presents a romanticised view of the antebellum south, the devastating effects of the Civil War, and the struggle of white Southerners to survive Reconstruction. When it appeared, Birth of a Nation provoked massive social protest, with the NAACP and others launching boycotts and bringing suit to prevent showings. This hugely successful movie, the first true blockbuster in film history, can now be seen as a popularizer of American history that perpetuated powerful and dangerous American racial myths. (Following the showing, the public is cordially invited to stay and participate in an open discussion of the film with Hamilton College faculty and students.)

Body and Soul, USA, Oscar Michaeux, 1924, 80 minutes -- February 3, 7:30 p.m.

The black American cinema began as a direct response to the racist bigotry of Birth of a Nation. Throughout the 1920s, Oscar Micheaux, born in 1884 to parents who had been slaves, was the major figure in the underground all-black cinema that attempted to create a black aesthetic to fill the vacuum left by Hollywood. Body and Soul represents Micheaux's highest achievement. Starring the great Paul Robeson in his movie debut, Body and Soul is Micheaux's attempt to wrestle with the nature of the black community. Robeson plays a dual role as both hustler-trickster and a good bourgeois disciple of Booker T. Washington, characters that represented the two alternatives Micheaux saw as open to the black man in America.

Sergeant Rutledge, USA, John Ford, 1960, 111 minutes -- February 10, 7:30 p.m.

In Sergeant Rutledge, John Ford, the well know Hollywood director of so many classic westerns, portrayed a black man as the central heroic figure for the first time in the history of the mainstream western. The film considers the effects of racial prejudice on a Buffalo Soldier in the old Southwest as it presents the story of a black sergeant of the 9th Cavalry (an all-black unit that fought during the Indian wars) who is put on trial for rape and murder. There is a special irony to Ford's commitment to telling the story of Sergeant Rutledge: in 1914, as a young newcomer to Hollywood, John Ford found various odd jobs in the movie industry, one of which was riding with the Ku Klux Klan as an extra in Birth of a Nation.

The Emerson Gallery is located in Clinton, New York, on the campus of Hamilton College, in Christian Johnson Hall, directly behind the college chapel. The Gallery is wheelchair accessible. Gallery hours are weekdays, 12-5, weekends, 1-5, during scheduled exhibitions when the college is in session. For further information, contact the Emerson Gallery at 315 859-4396.

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