August 23, 2004

MALEVOLENT MASTERPIECES:

Despite its blatant racism, 'Nation' still needs to be seen (Renée Graham, August 17, 2004, Boston Globe)

The first and only time I watched D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" in its entirety, I was a college student enrolled in a class on the African-American image in film. Though I'd heard of Griffith and what is widely acknowledged as his masterpiece, I knew nothing about the film when the black-and-white images began flickering across the screen in our small classroom.

Three hours later, we all sat slack-jawed, unable to even make eye contact with one another. It was the only occasion during my four years of college when I can recall a roomful of know-it-all students being rendered completely silent. That the 1915 film, based primarily on Thomas Dixon's play, "The Clansman," is considered one of cinema's groundbreaking achievements (it's regarded as the first epic narrative and a pioneering work in technical structure and editing) was totally lost on us. What resonated was its virulent racism. Blacks (actually played by white actors in blackface) are depicted as dumb and dangerous brutes, while the Ku Klux Klan is hailed as a group of gallant heroes protecting the virtue of white womanhood and uplifting the South after its defeat in the Civil War.

In the past 20 years, I've watched bits and pieces of "The Birth of a Nation," and my initial revulsion always gets the better of me. Still, even though it's unlikely I'll ever sit through this film again, I do not believe it should be consigned to some dusty closet, never to be shown in public again.

Last week, a Los Angeles theater owner canceled a planned screening of "The Birth of a Nation" after civil rights groups promised protests outside the venue. In launching a series on cinema's most important silent movies, Charlie Lustman, who runs the Silent Movie Theatre, described the film as "the biggest and most cinematic gem in history." Still, he intended to show a disclaimer denouncing the film's overtly racist content.

That wasn't good enough for Los Angeles NAACP president Geraldine Washington, who maintained the film possesses "no positive value whatsoever" and charged its screening would "run the risk of creating unrest and hate crimes." When the film opened in 1915, it all but served as a Klan recruitment tool, attracting more than 25,000 marchers to celebrate the movie's Atlanta premiere. The NAACP blamed the film, which President Woodrow Wilson allegedly compared to "writing history with lightning," for inciting racial violence.


People should see it for the same reason they should see Triumph of the Will, Inherit the Wind, and Battleship Potemkin--they demonstrate the capacity of brilliant propaganda to make myths that are more powerful than reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2004 11:11 PM
Comments

How about Fahrenheit 9/11?

Posted by: Governor Breck at August 24, 2004 7:14 AM

Masterpiece?

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 7:30 AM

I guess I'm tone deaf to propoganda, but I found all of these films unpersuasive and tedious (except Inherit the Wind) even for their time.

Birth of a Nation pales in comparison with the Great Train Robbery, Theif of Baghdad, or Safety Last. Triumph of the Will is a snooze fest compared with some of the great German films like Metropolis, Sigfried, The Last Laugh, Nosferatu, M, and Der Blau Engel. Battleship Potemkin is weak compared to Alexandr Nevsky and Poruchik Kizhe (Lt. Kije).

I enjoyed Inherit the Wind as a courtroom drama except for the final frothing at the mouth performance by Fredric March. Like the other films Orrin lists, I don't think it persuades anyone who doesn't already buy its main thesis.

Posted by: David Rothman at August 24, 2004 10:17 AM

Anything by Wagner?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 24, 2004 1:39 PM

There's nothing malevolent in Wagner's operas.

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 1:43 PM

That's rich. When they took out part of Lee Atwater's brain, it was announced that the growth wasn't malignant.

That's modern medicine for you, they find the only part of Atwater that wasn't malignant and take it out.

Same with Wagner

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 25, 2004 2:32 PM
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