Talk about making a better world usually involves the realms of education, activism, and politics. As it should, but there’s a fourth dimension of society, often overlooked, which is also crucial: the world of culture. Movies and TV, for example, are said to be America’s “soft power.” More people go to the movies each year than attend baseball, football, basketball, and hockey games…combined!
Last month, at a theater in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I began a lecture tour to nudge Hollywood into being a greater force of civic good than even this once fabled “Dream Factory” ever thought possible. My argument begins with the “real breaking news” discovery that, contrary to popular belief, “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was not the first US feature film. Given this movie’s notorious racism (it served as a recruitment tool for the KKK) knocking it off its “first” pedestal is, I believe, a cause for “dancing in the streets” level rejoicing.
But wait, the news gets even better. It turns out that the actual first American feature, “Resurrection” (1912), was as morally redeeming and spiritually uplifting as “Birth if a Nation” was repugnant. The film “Resurrection” was based on a Tolstoy novel (of the same name) that was the great Russian author’s most provocative, political, and best-selling book. Inspired by a true story about love and social justice, the novel so appealed to Adolph Zukor the founding mogul of Hollywood he based his original production on it.
Forgotten and relegated to obscurity because the film itself was lost, I’m on a mission to help the world remember it. It might be the best good news Russia story of the year: without collusion! Now, here’s where the story gets personal for me. The star of “Resurrection,” a great forgotten Belle Epoque actress named Blanche Walsh, was also my grandmother’s dear second mother. In a great act of love and empathy on the stage of her actual life, the actress (who was childless), rescued my grandmother from a London orphanage and brought her to live in NYC. I call it my “real life fairy tale.”
When I regaled a famous Russian filmmaker with this story, over lunch at the Park Lane Hotel, he exclaimed (in his thick Russian accent)“This is a movie! Perfect just like it is. Don’t change anything!” By re-writing Hollywood’s birth narrative to highlight its unknown ethical origin, I hope to inspire a more justice loving “Hollywood for the greater good” moving forward. When motivated, Hollywood has indeed “done the right thing” (a-la Spike Lee) before; if you consider progressive films like Modern Times, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bulworth, Selma, and the Michael Moore documentaries. As my project to help Tinseltown get its civic “act” together continues, I’ll close with this intriguing thought. Why don’t we bring the movie industry back to its Jersey roots (it all started in Fort Lee), and make Hoboken or Jersey City the new Hollywood? Your thoughts? I’m at email@example.com.
Host of Public Voice Salon