Birthright (1938)

Drama | 1938

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HISTORY

The film's subtitle is, "A story of the Negro and the South."
       Black pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux first adapted the novel Birthright by T.S. Stribling in 1924 under the same title (see entry), two years after Stribling’s serialized story was published in book form. Following the homecoming of a Southern black man who finishes his education at Harvard, Birthright was known at the time as a sharp condemnation of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. Following criticism of the graphic depiction of racism in his 1924 film, Micheaux responded with a published declaration that included his intentions as a filmmaker: “I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life to view the colored heart at close range… that we can raise our people to greater heights.”
       On 24 Nov 1937, Var announced that the recently produced Birthright was one of two Micheaux pictures, in addition to God’s Step Children (1938, see entry), scheduled to open in Dec 1937 via Sack Amusement Enterprises, described in the 13 Dec 1938 Boxoffice as a distributor devoted to all-African American feature films and short subject releases, with headquarters in Atlanta, GA; Dallas, TX; and Chicago, IL. Despite the announcement in Var, an article in the 14 Jan 1938 [Hackensack, NJ] Record indicated that filming was still underway at Lincoln Studios on Bergen Boulevard in Ridgefield, NJ, as part of a revival of motion picture production activity that had once flourished in northern New Jersey. An estimated fifteen crew members were said to ...

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The film's subtitle is, "A story of the Negro and the South."
       Black pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux first adapted the novel Birthright by T.S. Stribling in 1924 under the same title (see entry), two years after Stribling’s serialized story was published in book form. Following the homecoming of a Southern black man who finishes his education at Harvard, Birthright was known at the time as a sharp condemnation of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. Following criticism of the graphic depiction of racism in his 1924 film, Micheaux responded with a published declaration that included his intentions as a filmmaker: “I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the race a cross section of its own life to view the colored heart at close range… that we can raise our people to greater heights.”
       On 24 Nov 1937, Var announced that the recently produced Birthright was one of two Micheaux pictures, in addition to God’s Step Children (1938, see entry), scheduled to open in Dec 1937 via Sack Amusement Enterprises, described in the 13 Dec 1938 Boxoffice as a distributor devoted to all-African American feature films and short subject releases, with headquarters in Atlanta, GA; Dallas, TX; and Chicago, IL. Despite the announcement in Var, an article in the 14 Jan 1938 [Hackensack, NJ] Record indicated that filming was still underway at Lincoln Studios on Bergen Boulevard in Ridgefield, NJ, as part of a revival of motion picture production activity that had once flourished in northern New Jersey. An estimated fifteen crew members were said to be working under the supervision of a man named John Allstadt, and shooting was scheduled to conclude the following week. Two other Micheaux productions, God’s Step Children and Swing! (1938, see entry), were said to be simultaneously underway.
       Theatrical release most likely occurred sometime in 1938. A publicity still photograph, showing “hot-cha singer and dancer” Hazel Diaz appearing in a dance sequence, was printed in the 9 Apr 1938 [Baltimore, MD] Afro-American, suggesting that the film’s release was imminent. In Oakland, CA, Birthright was in theaters as of mid-Mar 1939, according to an 18 Mar 1939 Pittsburgh Courier item, announcing that black patrons of the Lincoln Theatre in Oakland, CA, had threatened a boycott of all black films after seeing Birthright and another Micheaux picture, Temptation (1936, see entry), at the Lincoln Theatre. The owner, Steve Chorak, apologized for “exhibiting such trash,” following moviegoers’ accusations that the films followed the example of white productions in “labelling all Negroes in the same class.”
       Oscar Micheaux, born in 1884, was the son of former slaves, and one of eleven siblings who attended segregated schools in Illinois. Working as a Pullman railroad car porter, Micheaux made enough money to buy a farm, but he lost his land in bankruptcy. However, the experience transformed him into a storyteller, and he began his career by writing novels about homesteading as a black man. Micheaux evolved from a novelist to a filmmaker when D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation (1915, see entry), which egregiously championed white supremacy. In opposition, Micheaux started his own production company and adapted his first novel, The Homesteader, for the screen in 1919 (see entry). He went on to write, direct and produce over thirty-five feature films. In 1986, thirty-five years after his death, he was presented with a posthumous Golden Jubilee Special Award from the Directors Guild of America. He has not received an Academy Award acknowledgement to date.
       While the 1924 version of Birthright is considered a lost film according to the Library of Congress report, “The Survival of the American Silent Feature Films,” the 1938 film is safeguarded for preservation and posterity in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress.

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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Afro-American [Baltimore, MD]
9 Apr 1938
p. 11.
Boxoffice
17 Dec 1938
p. 36.
Indianapolis Recorder [Indianapolis, IN]
8 Jul 1939
p. 12.
Pittsburgh Courier
18 Mar 1939
p. 21.
Record [Hackensack, NJ]
14 Jan 1938
p. 11.
Variety
24 Nov 1937
p. 4.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTOR
PRODUCERS
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
SOUND
Sd eng
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Birthright by T. S. Stribling (New York, 1922).
LITERARY SOURCE AUTHOR
SONGS
"Caravan," music and lyrics by Juan Tizol
"That's How Rhythm Was Born," music by J. C. Johnson, lyrics by George Whiting and Nat Schwartz
"I Never Knew," music by Ted Fiorito, lyrics by Gus Kahn
+
SONGS
"Caravan," music and lyrics by Juan Tizol
"That's How Rhythm Was Born," music by J. C. Johnson, lyrics by George Whiting and Nat Schwartz
"I Never Knew," music by Ted Fiorito, lyrics by Gus Kahn
"All God's Children Got Rhythm," music by Bronislau Kaper and Walter Jurmann, lyrics by Gus Kahn.
+
SONGWRITERS/COMPOSERS
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
1938
Physical Properties:
Sound
Wickmar Noiseless Recording
Black and White
Length(in reels):
9
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

Harvard University graduate Peter Siner is trying to raise money to start a school for African Americans. On his way to Hookers Bend, his hometown in the South, Peter encounters his friend Tump Pack, a decorated war hero and a gambler. While Tump is charged under an old town ordinance forbidding gambling, Peter becomes the object of attention from every eligible girl in town, including Cissie Dildane. Although Cissie pledges a contribution to fund Peter's school, she tells him that she disagrees with his approach to bettering the condition of blacks through industrial training, and instead favors literacy education. Soon after purchasing an old building from the unscrupulous white banker Henry Hooker, to house his school, Peter learns that Hooker has been conniving against him and trying to thwart his efforts to establish a black school in the area. When Peter takes a closer look at the contract he signed, he realizes that it contains a "stopper clause" preventing blacks from having anything to do with the property. He complains to Hooker, who only offers to buy back the deed at a fraction of the original purchase price. As word of Hooker's act of treachery spreads through the town, Cissie sends a letter to her sister Ida May, in which she writes that "the whole dirty little town" has turned its back on Peter because he is a college graduate who has been duped by a white man. Even Peter's mother berates him for being taken in by a white man. When Cissie goes to Peter to comfort him, she is met with his mother's scorn and she and Peter leave ...

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Harvard University graduate Peter Siner is trying to raise money to start a school for African Americans. On his way to Hookers Bend, his hometown in the South, Peter encounters his friend Tump Pack, a decorated war hero and a gambler. While Tump is charged under an old town ordinance forbidding gambling, Peter becomes the object of attention from every eligible girl in town, including Cissie Dildane. Although Cissie pledges a contribution to fund Peter's school, she tells him that she disagrees with his approach to bettering the condition of blacks through industrial training, and instead favors literacy education. Soon after purchasing an old building from the unscrupulous white banker Henry Hooker, to house his school, Peter learns that Hooker has been conniving against him and trying to thwart his efforts to establish a black school in the area. When Peter takes a closer look at the contract he signed, he realizes that it contains a "stopper clause" preventing blacks from having anything to do with the property. He complains to Hooker, who only offers to buy back the deed at a fraction of the original purchase price. As word of Hooker's act of treachery spreads through the town, Cissie sends a letter to her sister Ida May, in which she writes that "the whole dirty little town" has turned its back on Peter because he is a college graduate who has been duped by a white man. Even Peter's mother berates him for being taken in by a white man. When Cissie goes to Peter to comfort him, she is met with his mother's scorn and she and Peter leave together. Following the death of his mother, Peter goes to work for the town's richest man, Captain Renfrew. Renfrew's maid resents having to serve Peter as if he were a white man and lies to Renfrew, by telling him that Peter plans to marry Cissie, who, she claims, is a suspected thief. Although Peter denies the maid's charges and defends Cissie's innocence, the sheriff arrests Cissie for grand larceny. Soon after being arrested, however, Cissie escapes and goes to a nightclub, where Ida May is singing. There, Cissie tells her sister that it was Tump's brother who brought her to the nightclub, and that she witnessed him kill the jailer's assistant, known as "The Persimmon." When Peter shows up at the nightclub, he reads a telegram stating that Renfrew has died and left everything to him, including ninety percent of his ownership of the bank where Hooker works. He also reads that charges against Cissie have been dropped. As Peter develops plans to turn Renfrew's mansion into an industrial training school for black youths, he tries to encourage enrollment in his school by suggesting a law making it illegal to loiter near a popular meeting place. After having successfully established his school, Peter marries Cissie, and the couple drive to Chicago, where they will honeymoon.

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.