MICHAEL Johnson stood before the crowd in one of two theaters in the Heritage CinemaPlex on Taylor Avenue and recalled the time he was a film student at that other University of Maryland - the one near Washington, D.C.
"The teacher said we were going to watch the greatest film ever made," Johnson said. "I was right off Park Heights, so I figured we were going to be watching Superfly or Shaft. It turned out the film this teacher had in mind was Birth of a Nation."
D.W. Griffith's epic 1915 tale of the Civil War and Reconstruction revolutionized the art of filmmaking, pioneering many techniques in use today. That's the only thing it has going for it. Its vicious stereotyping of black Americans, its odious racism and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan make it a movie that should fill Americans with shame. We should watch it with equal parts reluctance, dread and shame, and with bags snugly pulled down over our heads.
Birth of a Nation certainly isn't a film that should be hailed as the "greatest ever." (The American Film Institute has rightly bestowed that title on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.) Johnson was so repulsed by the professor's assertion that he complained to a black professor, who promptly smacked him on the head and chided him for not knowing of Oscar Micheaux, America's first black film director.
In 1920, Micheaux's Within Our Gates was released. The film gave the flip side of Griffith's view of American race relations. Like Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates has a rape and lynching scene. Unlike Griffith's film, Micheaux's work shows lynching for the heinous crime it is. Within Our Gates is far from a good film, but it's an important one.
That's why Johnson had it on the schedule when he presented a black film festival at the Heritage CinemaPlex this past weekend. Opening a theater dedicated to showing films by and about blacks has been Johnson's passion for years. After shifting to various venues for several years, Johnson landed at the Taylor Avenue location in Towson that he swears is his last stop.
It's a good one. Heritage is within 12 blocks of the Beltway and is easily accessible from either the city or surrounding counties. There are plenty of restaurants in the area for folks to have a bite to eat before or after shows. Parking is not a problem. Johnson and the Heritage have found home, sweet home, at last.
It now remains to be seen if African-Americans in the metro area will support the place. Here's a chance for us to go beyond celebrating black history one month a year in February. With Heritage, we can help preserve the history all year round. Besides Within Our Gates, Johnson showed the all-but-forgotten film The Spook Who Sat by the Door at the festival. The 1959 version of Imitation of Life, the one with the incomparable Mahalia Jackson singing at the end, is scheduled for this weekend.
Yes, many of the films Johnson shows can be seen on cable. But here's a chance for families to take in movies once again, on the big screen, where they should be shown. School officials might want to take classes on field trips to view some of the films. Other movies might warrant post-viewing panel discussions.
Since I'll probably be a regular at Heritage, I may as well make up my wish list now. How about showing No Way Out, the 1950 Joseph Mankiewicz flick that marked Sidney Poitier's film debut, with Stanley Kramer's 1958 The Defiant Ones, which featured Poitier and Tony Curtis?
For years, critics have hailed The Defiant Ones as the groundbreaking 1950s American film on race relations. That reputation should go to No Way Out, superior to Kramer's work in every category that counts. Of course, I may be more than a little put off by Poitier's character in The Defiant Ones singing happily only a few hours after nearly being lynched.
I urge Johnson to bring back the 2000 film Lumumba and run it as a double feature with 1996's Nasser 56. True, the latter film was done by an Arab director about the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, but some black Americans fondly remember Nasser's contributions to African liberation movements. A panel discussion led by either Ronald Walters of the University of Maryland or local African-American Muslim journalist Sunni Khalid - or both - would be icing on the cake.
A lot of fun and informative times await us at Heritage - if we put our dollars where our mouths are.