By Malik Jones
NORFOLK, Va. – As the doors opened, angelic voices rang out in glorious harmony. Their sound filled the foyer, overwhelming the crowd with the joy, pain, and resolve within the powerful lyrics. The I. Sherman Greene Chorale Inc., founded in 1972, opened the “Birth of an Answer” event Sept. 21 with their stirring renditions of traditional Negro spirituals. Their performance instantly set the mood for the evening and helped prepare the audience for a trip into the past. Soon after, the auditorium opened and everyone filed inside, the crowd mainly middle-aged adults of all ethnicities.
The program officially began with a Q&A discussion led by composer Adolphus Hailstork and David Mallin, screenwriter of the short film “Our Nation.” Mallin also serves as the director of Old Dominion University’s Film Program. Both men engaged the audience and revealed just how important the “Birth of an Answer” event is as far as drawing from the past and helping to influence the premise behind the short film “Our Nation.”
“Good stories are good stories,” said Mallin. “People respond well to stories that are powerful.” It was those sentiments that fueled Mallin and Director Derrick Borte to tell a story in the backdrop of one of the most racially charged moments in United States and the city of Norfolk’s history: the theatrical release of “Birth of a Nation.”
Set in 1915 in Norfolk, “Our Nation” centers around an African-American boy named Douglas who is determined to see “Birth of a Nation,” the so-called “greatest movie ever made.” After being denied entrance into the theater, Douglas manages to sneak inside with the help of the theater’s black projectionist. While watching “Birth of a Nation,” Douglas realizes the racist and white supremacist views of the film and leaves the theater. On his way home, he sees a friend and pays for them both to see “Within Our Gates,” African-American filmmaker and pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s response film to “Birth of a Nation.”
Micheaux’s work explored themes of Jim Crow segregation, job discrimination, and labor exploitation while challenging the stereotypical and social complexes of both African-American and white communities. His films gave African-Americans a voice in a time and medium where they were expected to be silent.
Micheaux continues to inspire filmmakers all over the world and “Our Nation” not only proof of his legacy, but of the true power of the cinema.
The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications