Saturday, August 28, 2004

Censorship of Birth of a Nation

Roger Ebert has good output this week. His review of Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid is pretty entertaining and his Movie Answer Man column has a good point about the NAACP's victory in stopping a showing of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.

The second half of the film is clearly racist and I would oppose making it mandatory viewing at a film school. Yet, you can't get around the fact that this is one of the most important films ever made. Should we face the past or ignore it?

I can't make sense of the NAACP's position--were they afraid the Klan would use a silent movie nearly a century old for recruitment? It's hard for modern audiences to sit through black and white movies (I gave up trying to have students watch even a clip of something without color). I can't see a skinhead sitting an hour and a half through a silent film just to get to the start of the Klan storyline.

I own Birth of a Nation on DVD and have seen 27 of Griffith's estimated 490 films. Most are either border-line socialist or outright socialist--Griffith was far more to the left than any of his critics would believe. For the son of Jake Griffith, a confederate celebrity, he was more tolerant than would be expected. His friendship with the white supremacist President Woodrow Wilson ended primarily because of Griffith's more enlightened views (which granted isn't saying much--Wilson made Strom Thurmond look like Jesse Jackson). None of this makes him a wonderful person but I think the world could survive another showing of his most infamous movie.

Had Griffith hung on for another five years or so, it's certain that he would have one of the first directors blacklisted by the House UnAmerican Committee. I suspect this would have drastically altered his current perception. Does any of this justify the images of Birth of a Nation? Not at all, but it should make us consider the greater racism of Griffith's counterparts, few of which took any heat about it (Cecil DeMille's The Cheat [available from the Cincinnati Public Library] calls for the removal of minorities from society by any means necessary.)

As wrong and ugly as images of the second half of Birth of a Nation are, they're also almost laughable. The villainous leer and exaggerated facile expressions don't have the same effect on an audience as they did in 1916. Whatever you think of Griffith or the film, it shouldn't be used to justify censorship. If anything it could be used to show just how incompatible the Klan is to the modern world.

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