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From "Birth of a Nation" to "Till": The Politics of White House Screenings

In 1915, Woodrow Wilson gathered a small crowd in the East Room of the White House to show “The Birth of a Nation,” a film celebrating the Ku Klux Klan.

More than a century later, in the same room, President Biden on Thursday convened families of people killed in hate crimes for a screening of the movie “Till,” about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose murder in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement.

“History matters,” Mr. Biden said before the movie began, in front of an audience that included members of Emmett’s family, student groups and community activists. “We should know everything about our history, and that’s what great nations do.”

Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and lynched — what Mr. Biden called “pure terror.”

Presidents have long used White House movie screenings for more than just entertainment. The films they choose provide a glimpse into their interests and concerns, as well as the crises defining their time in office.

The first screening of Mr. Biden’s presidency was “The Survivor,” about a man who pursued a professional boxing career after he was forced to fight prisoners in Auschwitz. He and Jill Biden, the first lady, also held a showing of the documentary “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness.”

President George W. Bush held a screening of “United 93” in 2006 for families of victims killed on Sept. 11. “It’s dead silence as the credits roll, and you had sounds of quiet sobbing in the room,” Tony Snow, the press secretary at the time, has said.

And because presidents cannot just pop out to the neighborhood movie theater, they use the White House theater for pleasure, as well. President Donald J. Trump watched “The Greatest Showman” with members of Congress. On election night 2016, President Barack Obama watched “Dr. Strange.” Mr. Bush broke bread with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain at Camp David over the Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro comedy “Meet the Parents.”

“Movies are a powerful tool,” said Tevi Troy, a historian who has chronicled the film-viewing habits of presidents. “You get a better sense of who they are based off what they watch.”

Read entire article at New York Times