Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I'll be spending part of it preparing for a screening of 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) later this week at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
Showing this film poses problems. It's a landmark piece of cinema, sure. But it also contains a healthy dose of good old racism as it existed in this nation a century ago.
The racism, which in part was responsible for reigniting the Ku Klux Klan, is enough to make 'The Birth of a Nation' permanently damaged goods in the eyes of some. One theater manager whom I greatly respect said he would never, ever run the film, as it would bring an avalanche of protest to his doorstep.
But I think Martin Luther King Day provides a great opportunity for today's audiences to experience 'The Birth of a Nation' in a thoughtful context. This film, which Woodrow Wilson likened to "writing history with lightning," shows in a palpable way how far we've come. Also, it can get us thinking about how far we still have to go.
So I'm pleased to be creating live music for this film on Wednesday, Jan. 22 as part of the this year's silent film series at the Rogers Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
Start time is 7 p.m., and it's a long film, so I'll keep opening remarks brief. Admission is free. Don't miss this rare opportunity to see a classic of early Hollywood on the big screen in its full-length version, with live music and an audience.
For more information, here's the text of a press release that went out earlier...
THURSDAY, DEC. 26, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • email@example.com
‘Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?
Controversial movie to be screened with live music for MLK Day on Jan. 22 at Merrimack College
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass.—What if a movie was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes? What if a movie aimed to show the realities of life during the Civil War, and yet used white actors playing roles in blackface? What does it say if a movie was clearly racist, depicting blacks as an inferior sub-species to whites, but was still a box office smash?
Those are among the questions posed by ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), the ground-breaking epic film from director D.W. Griffith, which continues to inspire controversy nearly a century after its initial release.
In honor of Martin Luther King Day this year, a restored print of the film will be screened with live music at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. The screening, part of the Rogers Center’s silent film series, will take place on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at 7 p.m.
Admission to the screening is free and the public is welcome. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.
Organizers of the Rogers Center’s film series specifically chose the occasion of Martin Luther King Day to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ long regarded as a masterpiece of early cinema but tarnished by racism and prejudice.
“Although ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has been reviled for its blatant and pervasive racism, it was a huge hit in its day and was accepted as one of the landmarks of early cinema,” said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who will perform a live score for the movie.
“Screening this compromised classic to honor Martin Luther King Day is a chance for today’s audiences to appreciate how far we’ve come, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously,” Rapsis said.
As the first-ever Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ thrilled audiences in 1915 with its large-scale wartime action sequences, its recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and spectacular photography by cameraman G.W. Bitzer.
Even at the time of its release, the movie was regarded as monumentally insensitive to issues of race, depicting blacks as a sub-race inferior to whites and portraying Ku Klux Klan members as heroes. Conceived by Griffith, a native Southerner, as a saga of two families caught up in the Civil War and its aftermath, many viewers and critics regarded the film as a prolonged statement of cinematic bigotry.
Seen today, the film abounds with offensive racial comments and imagery both overt and implied. To complicate matters for contemporary audiences, Griffith had all leading roles of black characters played by white actors in blackface; black actors were kept in the background or used only for crowd scenes, which lends the film a surreal quality to modern viewers.
Despite the racism, the film’s innovative and powerful story-telling techniques, as well as its massive scale, opened Hollywood’s eyes to the full potential of cinema as an art form, exerting a powerful influence on generations of filmmakers to come.
The film’s pervasive influence extended beyond theaters, at times in unfortunate ways. As an unintended consequence, ’The Birth of a Nation’ inspired a revival of the then-dormant Klan, which flourished anew in the south thorough the 1920s, making extensive use of Griffith’s film for propaganda purposes.
The controversy continues today, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ inspiring passions nearly a century after its release. Has enough time passed for today’s audiences to regard this landmark film as an artifact of its time, or an indication of enduring prejudice? This Martin Luther King’s Day, decide for yourself how far we’ve come with a screening of a restored print of this tarnished American classic the way it was intended to be seen: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.
All movies in the Rogers Centers’s silent film series were popular when first released, but are rarely screened today in a way that allows them to be seen at their best. They were not made to be shown on television; to revive them, organizers aim to show the films at the Rogers Center as they were intended—in top quality restored prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ will be shown in honor of Martin Luther King Day on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. Admission to the screenings is free and the public is welcome. For more info on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.
CRITIC COMMENTS on ‘THE BIRTH OF A NATION’
“...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
—Roger Ebert, 2003, The Chicago Sun-Times
“If one can put the racial overtones aside, this is quuote probably the most accurate celluloid representation of Civil War times to exist. It was made only 50 years after the Civil War ended, when many people who had actually been through the war were still alive to give first hand accounts.”
—Robert K. Klepper, ‘Silent Films,’ (1999)
“More than a hugely successful spectacle, it was a masterpiece—using Griffith’s trademark cinematic techniques and combinging emotional intensity and epic sweep—but it was a deeply tainted one. Its racism—consciously intended by the filmmaker or not—makes parts of ‘Birth’ extremely difficult to watch today.”
—Peter Kobel, ‘Silent Movies,’ (2007)