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_Birth of a Nation_: cinema's problem child?


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#1 of 64 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted August 22 2000 - 08:49 AM

A little over two weeks ago, one of the premiere revival houses in Los Angeles, the Silent Movie on Fairfax Avenue, had planned a special screening of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Since the theater is located only three blocks from my house, I made casual plans to stroll over and attend the screening.

However, the local chapter of the NAACP voiced its opposition to the screening, as did a few other area activists. In response, the Silent Movie issued a press release announcing the cancellation of the screening.

Only slightly perturbed, I accepted the Silent Movie's decision. Besides, I understood the position taken by the NAACP and the activists. Very much so, in fact.

Yet, there's no denying this film's importance in the cinematic canon. I wasn't sure how I felt, overall. Though I'm big on sensitivity, I'm not so hot on historical revisionism, either.

Then, last Friday, Turner Classic Movies broadcast a special about D. W. Griffith. And, of course, much of the documentary focused on The Birth of a Nation and public and critical reaction to it.

What touched me most was an interview with an African-American man who attended one of the first screenings of the film. With a pained look on his old face, the gentleman related how he and his friends were hurt and dismayed by Griffith's portrayal of African-Americans and the sympathetic position the film takes in regard to the Ku Klux Klan.

Seriously, the man, after all these decades, still feels hurt because of the film. There was no questioning his sincerity.

So, how must we regard The Birth of a Nation in the year 2000? Is it cinema's equivalent of baseball legend Ty Cobb--that is, unquestionably "great," but still racist to the core? Is this a film we should let quietly die in the dustbin of history? Or should we revere it for its technical genius, while overlooking somehow the racist content?

Perplexed, I am. You?

#2 of 64 OFFLINE   Dave White

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Posted August 22 2000 - 08:57 AM

quote:


Is it cinema's equivalent of baseball legend Ty Cobb--that is, unquestionably "great," but still racist to the core?

Probably. But that's no reason at all to squelch the film. We don't have to celebrate anything that the contents of the film may advocate, but in order that future generations may assess what is often regarded as a cinematic landmark, Birth of a Nation must continue to be shown.

The audience can all get together and have a nice healthy debate afterwards about the pros and cons of Griffith's personal vision of society. Art sometimes does incite interesting conversations.

#3 of 64 OFFLINE   Dave L

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Posted August 22 2000 - 09:13 AM

The decision not to show the film was an attempt to rewrite history, which cannot be done (except maybe in some totalitarian counties). Yes, "Birth of a Nation" has some abominable scenes, but it also has some great battle footage, pioneered many filmmaking techniques, and was one of the most successful films of all time. Actually, "Gone with the Wind" treats the KKK somewhat sympathetically as well and indulges in stereotypes, but that hasn't kept it out of sight. The old "Amos and Andy" TV show is even worse for perpetuating stereotypes, but it is available on video, although not broadcast, that I'm aware of.

I think films of this type which portray stereotypes, whether racial, sexual, or ethnic, have to be viewed in historical context. They reflect society's way of seeing at a given time in history and as such are a valuable history lesson. They can illustrate how far we've come. Perhaps they should not be shown to children without some explanation, but they certainly should be available to the public for historical and artistic evaluation.

It's not all racial either. Recently, "The Gay Deceivers" was released on DVD. If ever there was an offensive portrayal of gay Americans, this was it. But should it be suppressed? No, it serves to show how society viewed gays back in the 1970s, although the producers would never get away with making a film like it today. If we carried political correctness to its conclusion, any film with Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn would be kept unseen on the same grounds of sexual stereotyping. Ditto the Griffith film and hundreds of others.

#4 of 64 OFFLINE   Ike

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Posted August 22 2000 - 09:24 AM

This country is built upon freedom of speech. Enough said.

#5 of 64 OFFLINE   Mitty

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Posted August 22 2000 - 09:43 AM

I think the NAACP might have done better to have a representative to speak at the beginning of the film, and hand out literature as to their objections to Griffith's vision (if they're not totally obvious) rather than mount a protest that would get the screening cancelled. Demonstration is called for from time to time but education is leagues more powerful when it can be used. But it's not the NAACP who is to "blame" (not really the word I want to use) for the cancellation - it's the theatre for bowing to their pressure. I understand that the NAACP and other groups are compelled to voice a protest whenever this film is shown but the exhibitors are not compelled to comply with their wishes. They both have rights. Of course, the activist group will brand the theatre's management as being racist if they exhibit this film, even though that's absurd and any thinking person knows this. But it's not the thinking person who the managment is concerned with offending, it's the individual whose entire view on a matter can be swayed by a sound bite on the 6 o'clock news.

As it stands, your opportunity to see the film on a big screen has been squelched. And the rights of D.W. Griffith (long since dead obviously) to freely express himself have been squelched. I understand that the issues here are deep and that its not cut and dried, but ultimately the educated and intelligent are having their freedoms limited for fear of having the wrong influence on the ignorant. Attempting to simply steer the would-be ignorant away from negative influences is not any kind of long term solution.

Excellent topic, and nice post Jack.

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#6 of 64 OFFLINE   Dave White

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Posted August 22 2000 - 03:01 PM

I'm a little surprised there's not more interest in this thread, considering the epic extents to which the "Spike Lee Slam Dunks 'The Patriot'" thread grew. Oh well. I do think it is a shame that film lovers and students were deprived of the rare opportunity to see the film.

#7 of 64 OFFLINE   Jarod M

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Posted August 22 2000 - 03:04 PM

I've been working on an article about Griffith (including some thoughts on the aborted showing of Birth), so I guess this thread is right up my alley.

Quote:
So, how must we regard The Birth of a Nation in the year 2000? Is it cinema's equivalent of baseball legend Ty Cobb--that is, unquestionably "great," but still racist to the core? Is this a film we should let quietly die in the dustbin of history? Or should we revere it for its technical genius, while overlooking somehow the racist content?

1. Yes. But believe it or not Birth could have been more racist had Griffith followed the novel on which it was based more closely. This novel, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, is one of the most hate-filled books you could ever read.
2. No. Let's not sweep our past under the rug, ok people? Forget about the greatness of Birth as a work of cinema-the movie stands as an eye-opening example of the widespread racism that existed during this period. Most people were not joining the KKK or actively trying to put down those people with a darker skin color. But the fact that this movie was acceptable to most people underlines the problems of that society. After all, Birth is widely recognized as having been attended by larger crowds than saw Gone With the Wind, with the only protest coming from the NAACP, which did not wield much influence back then. If you think Titanic was popular, just imagine it being even more a phenomenon only with racist elements similar to Birth. That would be a pretty f'ed up world to live in, wouldn't it? So let's keep a movie like Birth in the public eye so that we have some perspective and understanding to avoid any reoccurrences of the unfortunate chapters of our country's past.
3. You can revere Birth for its technical genius and still recognize the racist aspects. I would call it an incredible but very disturbing film.

I believe that the NAACP is partially responsible for the cancellation of the screening, and it reflects upon that organization's ignorance and overzealousness. Surely there are more worthwhile causes to which the NAACP can devote its energy and resources!

Jarod

#8 of 64 OFFLINE   Dave White

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Posted August 22 2000 - 03:16 PM

quote:


Surely there are more worthwhile causes to which the NAACP can devote its energy and resources!

You would think, huh?

Your points are nicely stated, by the way. That's the kind of historical perspective that screenings of Birth of a Nation could instill if people were more rational.

#9 of 64 OFFLINE   CharlesD

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Posted August 22 2000 - 03:41 PM

It seems to me that Birth of a Nation is a historical document no matter what its merits as a piece of film history may be. Suepressing history serves no postivie purpose whatsoever. Like any historical document it should be examined as being instructive of its time as well as its artistic merits.

Those opposed to any racism portrayed by this movie would have their aims better served by campaiging for an intelligent discussion of its place in film history than by having a screening banned.

There is no doubt that the USA has a long way still to go in terms of race realtions, but censorship in any form is never the answer to such problems.

#10 of 64 OFFLINE   Larry Schneider

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Posted August 22 2000 - 03:54 PM

I deplore censorship, period. Nobody is trying to persuade NAACP members to watch the film; they are infringing the right of others to watch it.

#11 of 64 OFFLINE   Dave Hahn

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Posted August 22 2000 - 05:07 PM

Doctors, their patients, and medical science in general would all be better off if the results of the research from the medical experiments conducted by Nazi Doctors and scientists on unwilling patients in death camps had been allowed. None of that information has ever been used, by anyone. The professionals in the medical, scientific, and acedemic fields considered it tainted beyond redemption. No one, not even society at large should benefit from such horror visited upon the innocent.

Those who would justify viewing Birth of a Nation (not it's original title by the way) because it was a landmark film for cinemagraphic techniques, these people, well, I don't know what to say about those people except I don't want anything to do with them.

When this "film" came out it caused numerous lynchings and horrors to the African-American community and pushed back race-relations for 50 years. The film champions those who would kill a man, women, or child simply because of the color of their skin. Birth of a Nation is an abmonination. D.W. Griffith and the Klu Klux Klan have a right to their own opinions and a constitutional right to voice them. All right thinking men and women have a moral obligation to denounce them, to vilify them, and to eradicate them from the face of the earth.

P.S.

Buy the way, I'm a late thirties-something, fat ornery white guy who has been a conservative Republican all his life.

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#12 of 64 OFFLINE   Scott Harris

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Posted August 22 2000 - 05:44 PM

It is a hoot that that is all the NAACP has to protest about. They must be bored, because right now equal opportunity is univerally accepeted in the US, so now they have to resort to protesting a silent movie! HA! MLK is probbly ROTFL in his grave right now. NAACP is going to have to find something more worthy to bitch and moan about if they plan to make me change the channel from Cartoon Network to CNN. Posted Image

#13 of 64 OFFLINE   Jarod M

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Posted August 22 2000 - 05:45 PM

Dave Hahn wrote:
Quote:
Those who would justify viewing Birth of a Nation (not it's original title by the way) because it was a landmark film for cinemagraphic techniques, these people, well, I don't know what to say about those people except I don't want anything to do with them.

I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean. So you believe that a person should not see it for his or herself and make up their own mind? Have you seen the movie, and if so, how did you justify watching it? Do you really feel that those Nazi doctors should be equated to D.W. Griffith?

Quote:
All right thinking men and women have a moral obligation to denounce them, to vilify them, and to eradicate them from the face of the earth.

Isn't that what Hitler said about the Jewish people? Posted Image

#14 of 64 OFFLINE   Patrick_S

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Posted August 22 2000 - 06:34 PM

Quote:
Doctors, their patients, and medical science in general would all be better off if the results of the research from the medical experiments conducted by Nazi Doctors and scientists on unwilling patients in death camps had been allowed. None of that information has ever been used, by anyone.

Dave,

Actually people and governments have used some of the research results. The US military has used much of the hypothermia results to conduct some of their own research and a few years ago a woman doctor used some of the results for a paper that she published. She of course was roundly criticized for doing so.

Quote:
Those who would justify viewing Birth of a Nation (not it's original title by the way) because it was a landmark film for cinemagraphic techniques, these people, well, I don't know what to say about those people except I don't want anything to do with them.

I have never watched the movie but your statement seems missed placed. Certainly one could watch the film to see the innovations that it introduced into modern filmmaking and still disagree with the plot.

In fact, I believe that perhaps some power lessons can be learned from viewing the film. It can be used has a vehicle for opening discussions concerning the racism that existed then and still does today.


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#15 of 64 OFFLINE   Rachael B

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Posted August 22 2000 - 07:05 PM

I read Mein Kampf, by Hitler and I didn't become a skinhead or a Nazi or anything! I now have a better understanding of Hitler's evil. I'm going to watch this movie, it's on the AFI film challenge list. I would think Black people would want to see this movie! It's history itself and deserves study. Surely, no white people protested a movie like ROSEWOOD, because it depicted white people badly. So, far as I know, no Black organizations protested it for any reason. If ROSEWOOD, exposed racism, what's the difference if a dusty old movie does too? Hypocracy helps no endevor. BIRTH OF A NATION is evidence and needs to be weighed in study, the way I see it.

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#16 of 64 OFFLINE   Seth Paxton

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Posted August 22 2000 - 07:12 PM

Jarod's rebuttle of Dave gets near my #1 reason that Birth is vital viewing.

IMHO, the methods Griffith hit upon for creating emotional impact within a film was tremendous. Watch Birth and replace blacks and carpetbaggers with Nazi's, Romans, or Stormtroopers and you have The Longest Day, Ben-Hur or Star Wars.

He took the creation of emotional impact in films to another level. If the Klan were changed to some heroic figures like the Marines, and they came charging into the scene to "Flight of the Valkaries" playing in the background and you would have "Apocalypse Now". We would cheer "Here come our boys!". We would high five as they whipped ass. We would leave the theater as though Arnold just killed the new Terminator.

That says something. The racist viewpoint does not speak about the filmmaking, it speaks about the mentality of society at the time. I think it should be shown at least for shock value, to show people how bad things can be/had been. It puts things into perspective.

And most disturbingly, it makes you wonder...if people could walk out of the theater high fiving in 1915 to Birth, are we any better now letting off rousing cheers when the Death Star is destroyed? In what way has the human mentality changed since Birth? The villians in Birth are stupid and evil, intent on destruction and creulity. Of course the heros must stop them. We still like our movies to depict this sort of revenge.

The problem is not that the Klan comes rolling in to stop the blacks, its that blacks were depicited as cruel and stupid for no reason and that the KKK was depicted as upstanding and heroic. Ignoring those blind, racist choices and take the movie on face value (heros vs villians) and it helped set the standard for how such films should be made.

Racism was rampent still in 1915...what a freakin' surprise that is. But Griffith's goal was to make a southern pride film, more than an anti-black film. After all he spent quite of bit of film portraying the blacks as visciously cruel before unleashing the KKK on them. He may have been giving justification to the Klan, but even he wasn't depicting the murder of innocent blacks. He made his villians do evil things before revenge is sought.

Can anyone say "The Patriot?" British = blacks. Hmmmm? Spike was obviously confused about where the real racism in that film was located.

#17 of 64 OFFLINE   Darren H

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Posted August 23 2000 - 12:53 AM

>I understand that the issues here are deep and that its
>not cut and dried, but ultimately the educated and
>intelligent are having their freedoms limited for fear of
>having the wrong influence on the ignorant. Attempting to
>simply steer the would-be ignorant away from negative
>influences is not any kind of long term solution.

I'm just checking to see if Mitty is really a Canadian, because that is the most perfectly succinct description of the contemporary American political climate that I have read. Very well said.
[ long pauses ]

#18 of 64 OFFLINE   brianacook

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Posted August 23 2000 - 01:09 AM

This thread is a perfect example of why this forum is so well respected. An intelligent discussion with vastly opposing viewpoints on a very explosive topic and no one has even come anywhere near losing their cool.

Now for the tough part - my take on the issue. I will honestly say that I am totally in the middle on this one. I have never seen this film and am not even sure about what it contains other than what I've read so far in this post, but I still feel I can contribute to the discussion.

First off, I am about as liberal a person as you are going to find. It is obvious that the message of this film was hatred, pure and simple, that point is not even to be argued. Also, in my opinion, the question of it being a landmark film does not come into play. The term "great film, but racist" just doesn't cut it in my opinion. If it is racist, it is inherently NOT great. The big question is this - is the general public better served by seeing this film or by not seeing it??

To this question, I have no answer because I just do not know. I can speak for myself and say that I would probably benefit more from seeing it than not. But what about everyone else? Are people like myself to be prevented from viewing it simply because of the effect it will have on others? This is a tough one.

Obviously, not everyone is going to view this movie in a historical, lesson-to-be-learned manner. We all know that. Does that mean it shouldn't be shown? Maybe. Does the harm done by not allowing us to see it outweigh the potential harm of it being shown to the masses? Unlikely.

I will continue to monitor this thread in the hopes of someone being able to answer my questions.

One last point. Scott made the statement:

"right now equal opportunity is univerally accepeted in the US"

I have to disagree with this. Although we have come a long way, many of us still have a longer way to go.

Brian




#19 of 64 OFFLINE   Edwin Pereyra

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Posted August 23 2000 - 01:14 AM

I just hate it when I can't participate in such a lively discussion such as this. Posted Image This movie has now moved up in my queue as part of the AFI Challenge. I'll post my thoughts here after this weekend.

~Edwin

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#20 of 64 OFFLINE   Brian Perry

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Posted August 23 2000 - 01:37 AM

Quote:
And most disturbingly, it makes you wonder...if people could walk out of the theater high fiving in 1915 to Birth, are we any better now letting off rousing cheers when the Death Star is destroyed? In what way has the human mentality changed since Birth? The villians in Birth are stupid and evil, intent on destruction and creulity. Of course the heros must stop them. We still like our movies to depict this sort of revenge.

Seth,

I don't understand what your point is here. Are you saying that movies depicting the struggle between good vs. evil (with or without elements of revenge) are no better than BOAN? Please clarify.


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