It’s official. I’ve started a crowdfunding campaign for my idea to “liberate” two old movies from the Library of Congress. Here’s what I’ve learned about the two movies, The Crisis (1916) and The Birth of a Race (1918), which I’m trying to release online for free.
The 1916 movie The Crisis was supposed to be an answer to the overtly racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. But The Crisis hasn’t been seen in generations. The silent movie never got a home video release on VHS or DVD, and hasn’t been screened publicly in over a century. But there is a copy of the film at the Library of Congress, and I’d like to “liberate” the film with a little help from a new crowdfunding campaign I’m calling The Movie Liberator Project.
To be clear, I’ve never seen The Crisis or The Birth of a Race, and I have no idea whether they’re any good. But it seems strange to me that the movies are just sitting at the Library of Congress and not posted online for all to see. The movies have been in the public domain for years, which means that anyone is free to share the movies without violating copyright law. But we need to liberate the movies first with a little money.
I contacted the Library of Congress and they want $252 to deliver a digital copy of The Crisis and $213 to deliver The Birth of a Race. The Crisis has a run time of 1 hour, 45 minutes and The Birth of a Race has a runtime of 1 hour, 30 minutes.
I’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise the money, and anyone who chips in at least $3 gets an early copy of one of the movies delivered electronically three months before I post the films for free online at YouTube and Archive.org. Chipping in $5 gets you both movies, and $10 gets you both movies as well as a vote on what films we liberate next. Any additional money collected above $500 (the Indiegogo minimum) will go toward liberating more old films.
The Crisis (1916)
How did I learn about The Crisis? I discovered that the only copy of the film is at the Library of Congress while doing research for my forthcoming book, All The Presidents’ Movies, due out September 2020 for Abrams Books. President Woodrow Wilson watched the film on March 6, 1917, just a month before Congress voted to declare war on Germany and enter World War I. The movie seems significant, though again, I’ve never seen it.
Here’s how the 2012 book Col. William N. Selig: the Man Who Invented the Movies by Andrew A. Erish describes the movie:
More than just an attempt to capitalize on the unprecedented success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Crisis was a sympathetic portrait of abolitionism and President Lincoln’s efforts to reunify the country. The story, adapted by Selig staff writer Lanier Bartlett from a best-selling novel, concerns families from the North and South whose friendship is tested by the war.
Clearly, this was to be another important historical spectacle along the lines of The Coming of Columbus (1912), and genuine props and locations were used to authenticate the production. Five steel engravings that had hung in Lincoln’s White House office and the dispatch box that accompanied him throughout the war were loaned by the US government; a slave auction was re-created on the steps of the St. Louis Courthouse; one of the few extant Civil War warships was procured for the spectacular attack on Fort Jackson; and an enormous and stunningly photographed torch-lit rally was staged for the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Six hundred members of the Mississippi National Guard were employed to stage the Battle of Vicksburg, one of many day- and nighttime combat sequences in the film that rivaled Griffith’s. Eight gunboats were constructed atop barges and loaded with explosives for a spectacular Mississippi River battle. In one memorable shot, a shell exploded beneath a soldier on horseback standing atop a ridge, causing horse and rider to tumble down a steep embankment. It was spectacularly harrowing, as good as any movie stunt that’s ever been performed. According to promotional material prepared by the company, the stuntman on the horse was none other than Tom Mix.
Tom Mix would go on to be an incredibly popular cowboy star in Westerns during the 1920s.
The Birth of a Race (1918)
There isn’t a lot of information about the movie The Birth of a Race. In fact, there’s a fair amount of misinformation online about the film. One recent article in a Florida newspaper claimed that most of the film was lost forever and that there’s only 10 minutes of the film that survives. But the Library of Congress tells me that’s not the case. They believe they have a complete cut of the film that runs about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
The March 14, 1919 edition of the Dixon Evening Telegraph in Illinois:
Along with its romance, its smiles and tears and thrills, this exception picture play carries us back to the creation, thence to Noah and the Flood, to Moses, to the Cruxcifiction, to Columbus, to the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln and into the great world war and out into the sunshine of peace, with a better understanding and a closer brotherhood between all races and nationalities.
The book Fire and Desire : Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era by Jane Gaines explains:
The story of the fiasco of the mixed-race Birth of a Race production begins with the efforts of Booker T. Washington’s secretary Emmett J. Scott to negotiate the rights to Up From Slavery, which was originally to have been the basis of the film. But over a two-year period the script took abrupt turns, with people from both the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP involved with the white screenwriter at different times. Although W.E.B. Du Bois eventually dropped out of the project, he was for a time interested in launching a film, so interested that he and other NAACP members had discussions with Universal’s Carl Laemmle. As editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis, Du Bois not only helped formulate the terms of the protest against The Birth of a Nation in his editorials but also advocated the creation of a black motion picture tradition. One is tempted to speculate about the contribution that Du Bois might have made to the history of African American cinema, but in retrospect it is clear that it was not intellect alone that was needed. What was needed was capital. The underfinanced Birth of a Race company and others were short-lived. After the fanfare of the premiere at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre in 1919, The Birth of a Race saw no widespread distribution.
There are plenty of other public domain movies hidden away in archives that need liberation and I’ve even made a preliminary list here. But The Crisis (1916) and The Birth of a Race (1918) seem like a good place to start. If you’d like to help, please contribute to my crowdfunding campaign.