The Birth of a Nation--a film everyone should see. Part 1
Now, a century since its original release date, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation has been mostly forgotten. Film historians, however, view it as a landmark achievement in storytelling that influenced every film to come after. The film also made the original AFI top one hundred and garnered critical acclaim and box-office success. It may also be considered the first superhero movie: audiences were reported to have cheered at the sight of heroes dressed in elaborate costumes who rode in on horseback just in time to save the day.
But these heroes weren't The Avengers:
The absolutely racist subject matter may be why it has been mostly forgotten, which is a shame because everyone should see this film. Why? Because nothing else I have ever seen or read possibly explains racism better. As abhorrent as this film's message is, no other film gives a complete picture of the Old South and how it saw itself, and these attitudes and viewpoints still resonate with us today in some minute and insidious form.
Simply put, it is a part of our history that should not be forgotten. By history I do not refer to the film's accurate depiction of events, just as a mere recital of historic facts has never been, at least to me, actual "history". This movie has little to do with historical accuracy or facts*. Watching the film we learn little about the period of Reconstruction, only what people (North and South) in 1915 thought of those "dark times":
Before the war, slavery had maintained a social and natural hierarchy. Whites, as the rightful caregivers to blacks, held a justified dominion over them, keeping them restrained and tamed as anyone would a dangerous animal. It had been "humane" to take up this "White Man's burden" (the film gives us instances of this in the depiction of the loyal and still-subservient blacks** who help fight off the marauding trouble makers). Abolition and Reconstruction allowed blacks with their inferior minds and relentless sexual appetites to run wild while God-fearing white men could only watch in horror. It is only when these men come together and become the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan can they fight back against the corruption and disorder and thus restore everything to its rightful place. By the end of the film the Grail has been restored in the form of Jim Crow laws.
So, in today's America where racism exists mostly as unconcious attitudes directed at certain types of individuals based on how they look or dress or where they live, what can a film like The Birth of a Nation teach us about current society? A society where unarmed black men are more likely to be killed by the police than armed white men? Sure, we do not believe as they did in 1915, but we are nowhere near the post-racial society we imagine ourselves to be. This film is something we must confront and understand if we are to get closer to that ideal.
To be continued...
*Just look at the scene following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln where a group of former slave-owning Southerners mourn his death.
**I should mention here that the "black" people in this film were white men in blackface. For some reason it had been hard for the studio to find African Americans willing to star in a film that celebrated lynchings.
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