Okay, let's face it: 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) is a film flawed by racism. Just check out that poster above!
That should be obvious to anyone who sees it. But does that mean no one should ever see it?
I deal with this question every time I program 'The Birth of a Nation' or accompany it.
This ancient D.W. Griffith movie basically depicts black people as inferior to white people and makes heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. How can anyone justify showing it?
Indeed, some people feel strongly that the film should never be shown. Instead, it should just stay locked up and kept out of sight.
Well, I disagree—obviously, as I'm doing music for 'The Birth of a Nation' for a Memorial Day weekend screening on Sunday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
A coupla three of reasons for disagreeing...
• First, I feel the film amounts to a valuable primary source. It vividly shows the pervasiveness of racism in America at the time it was made. As the late Roger Ebert pointed out in remarks I quote below, that's something worth knowing.
• And then there's the undeniable effect that 'The Birth of a Nation' had on the early motion picture industry. In making the film, director D.W. Griffith demonstrated the power of cinema on a grand scale. And Hollywood would never be the same.
• Finally, I think all the big Griffith films ('Birth' included) really do need to be screened in their original environment for their impact to be appreciated. By "original environment," I mean in a theater, with live music, and—most importantly—with an audience. So that means actually running the film.
Still, I've always felt it helped to have a reason or an occasion to justify screening 'The Birth of a Nation.'
For a few years now, I've made a point of scheduling 'Birth' in January in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. I felt the holiday was a perfect opportunity to showcase what King and so many others had to battle.
But now it occurs to me that Memorial Day weekend is a good time to show the film, too.
It's partly rooted in the history of this solemn holiday. Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day, which originally arose in the 19th century as a time for communities across the nation to honor their Civil War dead.
It's also the 100th anniversary of the film's original release, so that counts for something, too.
But even without these anniversary tie-ins, it's still a film worth screening—not to promote racism, but so that we don't forget the extent of it during a time that no one today has any first-hand experience of.
Film (even a fictional tale) as a primary source. I'm not an academic, but I think as more time passes, old cinema will increasingly help illuminate times long past.
Imagine if we had some film from Shakespeare's time? Or from the time of Christ? Imagine how much such film, even it was purely fictional stories, could tell us about the times in which it was made?
I've been working my way through some audio lectures about Western Civilization lately, and it's amazing how excited scholars get over the most mundane of scraps of info that have come down to us. So I can't help but think: wouldn't it be great to find a romantic comedy filmed during, say, the reign of Pharoah Snefru of Ancient Egypt?
We're heading in that direction in this country, so don't think it can't happen, folks.
Okay: if this Memorial Day weekend finds you in New Hampshire, I hope you'll join us. More details of the screening in the press release below:
MONDAY, MAY 11, 2015 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
‘The Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?
Controversial movie to be screened with live music on Sunday, May 24 at Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre
WILTON, N.H.—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 a full century after its initial release.
In honor of the film's 100th anniversary, as well as the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, a restored print of the film will be screened on Memorial Day weekend at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. The screening, part of the Town Hall Theatre’s silent film series, will include live music and take place on Sunday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m.
Admission is free and the public is welcome. A donation of $5 per person is suggested. The program will be accompanied live by silent film musician Jeff Rapsis.
Although the film is regarded as a masterpiece tarnished by racism and prejudice, Memorial Day weekend was chosen to screen ‘The Birth of a Nation’ because of the recent 150th anniversary of the Civil War's end.
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.
“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.
The year 2015 also marks the 100th anniversary of the original release of 'The Birth of a Nation.'
“Screening this compromised classic is a chance for today’s audiences to consider first-hand evidence of the obstacles to race equality that existed a century ago, to think about what progress has been made, 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 further 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.
Among the white actors in blackface who played prominent roles is New Hampshire native Walter Long, a popular character actor in Hollywood's early years. Records are unclear about his hometown: Long was born in either Milford or Nashua in 1879.
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 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 Memorial Day weekend, 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 Wilton Town Hall Theatre'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 on Sunday, May 24, at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 60 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission to the screenings is free; a donation of $5 per person is suggested. For more info, call (603) 654-3456 or visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com. 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 combining 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)