In 1928, Lloyd Binford, chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors, banned Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic King of Kings from playing within the city limits. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Binford followed local Jewish leaders who objected to the film on the grounds that it was anti-Semitic. Other sources cite Binford’s opinion that the story of Jesus deviated from text in the New Testament, while still others state that he deemed the crucifixion scenes too violent.
In her book Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle, author Laurie Beth Green writes that Binford declared that King of Kings was “one of the worst travesties of the Bible [he had] ever seen!” In Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis, author and historian Wayne Dowdy takes that quote a step further, citing Binford as stating that several scenes were “a perversion of the true life of Christ.”
A lawsuit filed in circuit court ruled in favor of the Lyric Theater, which was slated to run of King of Kings at 291 Madison Avenue in March 1928. Powers-that-be at the Lyric refused to delete several scenes, as ordered by Binford. Judge A.B. Pittman ruled in the theater’s favor, but city attorney Walter Chandler appealed. Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and King of Kings was not screened in Memphis.
On to the film: King of Kings, the second in DeMille’s Bible trilogy, stars H.B. Warner as Jesus and Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, depicted here as a wild courtesan. Author and philosopher Ayn Rand appears as an extra. According to the New Yorker, “on the set, Rand persuaded a costume director to promote her from a crowd of beggars to a crowd of patricians.”
King of Kings is the "Greatest Story Ever Told" as only DeMille could tell it. Working with one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, he spun the life and Passion of Christ into a silent-era blockbuster. Featuring text drawn directly from the Bible, a cast of thousands, and the great showman’s singular cinematic bag of tricks, King of Kings is at once spectacular and deeply reverent—part Gospel, part Technicolor epic.
John Beifuss, journalist, film critic and columnist at the Commercial Appeal, and the Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, Pastor at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, will introduce the screening. After the film, Beifuss and Montgomery will lead a brief discussion about Lloyd Binford’s censorship, the popularity of big-screen Biblical epics and the Americanization of religious icons.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille | USA | 1928 | 112 minutes
$9/$5 Brooks members and students with valid id/Free with VIP Film Pass.
Tickets are available online until 2:30 pm the day of the screening or 2:30 pm on Friday for weekend matinees. Tickets are also available at Visitor Services, or by calling 901.544.6208 during regular business hours. Unsold tickets are also available in the rotunda immediately preceding a screening.
Tour: Depictions of Christ
Wednesday, April 12 | 6 pm
Preceding the screening, the Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, Pastor at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, will host an informal tour of depictions of the Christ figure in the museum’s permanent collection. Join us for a gallery discussion chronicling examples of western religious imagery across a vast range of time periods and artistic styles. No reservation required; tour will accommodate first 30 guests to arrive.
Banned in Memphis is a series of film screenings highlighting work banned from screening in Memphis theaters by Lloyd Binford, the head of the Memphis Censor Board for 28 years. Regarded as “the toughest critic in America,” the former railway clerk turned insurance executive was notorious for his views on white supremacy, womanhood, and outsider views of the American South. Binford banned films with African American stars or unsegregated scenes, films that featured violence or teenage rebellion, and even film that he disliked because of the personal conduct of the actors rather than the content of the script.
Other screenings in the series include:
The Wild One, introduced by author and historian Wayne Dowdy.
Wednesday, May 17 | 7 pm
Cabin in the Sky, introduced by writer, filmmaker and producer Willy Bearden.
Wednesday, June 21 | 7 pm
The Outlaw, introduced by author and archivist Vincent Astor.
Wednesday, July 12 | 7 pm
Stromboli, introduced by author and columnist Richard Alley.
Wednesday, August 23 | 7 pm