Thursday, January 5, 2012

'Birth of a Nation' (1915) on Thursday, Jan. 12 at Flying Monkey Theatre in Plymouth, N.H.

When I tell people that we're screening 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) in honor of the U.S. holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., I am sometimes greeted with raised eyebrows. Why would we screen this film, infamous for its blatant racism, to mark a day honoring the racial tolerance and progress advocated by Dr. King? What kind of tribute to his legacy is a film in which the Ku Klux Klan comes riding to the rescue?

Well, the simple answer is that 'The Birth of Nation' vividly shows how far we've come since it was first released. More specifically, what Dr. King and so many other advocates for racial justice were up against. And as someone with an interest in vintage film, I can't think of a better way to commemorate this holiday. 'The Birth of a Nation' is a great chance for anyone watching it to examine his or her own attitudes about racism. A phrase suggests itself: "Lest We Forget."

Ironically, the phrase is from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, an old-fashioned British imperialist, and not exactly known for his commitment to racial tolerance. For a time in the 1890s, Kipling lived in our corner of the world, on a farm in Brattleboro, Vt., where he started writing the Jungle Books. There he is on the left. But I digress.

Back to 'The Birth of a Nation.' I think the film falls into that category of silent movies that have become more interesting with the passage of time. Why? Because while we've changed, it remains just as it was when it was first shown in 1915. Seeing it now, a hundred years in the future, can provide invaluable insight into where we've come from as a people, what we are today, and what we might possibly become tomorrow. As Roger Ebert wrote about the film (quoted below in the press release) in 2003:
"...the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. ... That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”
I hadn't been eager to see this film, and so wasn't familiar with it until I did music for a screening last year. I must say I was swept away by Griffith's almost giddy indulgence on a large scale of all the story-telling techniques he'd been developing in much shorter films in the previous decade. Somehow the film still radiates an excitement on this level that even the blatant racism can't totally destroy.

Hope you can join us at the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, N.H. and see for yourself. Speaking of the press release, here it is in all its glory...

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

‘Birth of a Nation’: Silent film masterpiece or racist artifact?

Landmark movie to be screened with live music for MLK Day on Jan. 12 in Plymouth, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, 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 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 Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H. The screening, part of the Flying Monkey’s silent film series, will take place on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 per person.

Organizers of the Flying Monkey’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 Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire silent film musician 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.

The film stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, and dozens of other silent-era performers. Gish, who died in 1993 at age 99, continued to act in films as late as 1987, when she appeared in ‘The Whales of August.’ Her later work includes an appearance on the TV series ‘The Love Boat’ in 1981.

All movies in the Flying Monkey’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 Flying Monkey 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 Thursday, Jan. 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Admission is $10 per person, general admission seating. Tickets available at the door or in advance by calling the Flying Monkey box office, (603) 536-2551 or online at


“...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)

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