Thursday, September 02, 2004

Lies Writ in Lightning: "Birth of a Nation"

Okay, Dearest Readership, I agree that "Flashdance" is pretty bad, though if pressed I'd rank the 1996 godforsaken pile of shit version of "Romeo and Juliet" starring Clare Danes and Leonardo Di-Crap-io right up there. Only movie I've ever walked out of.

Anyway, I've been asked to explain why "Birth of a Nation" is so bad. We preface with background ripped straight from (though paraphrased extensively) the History Channel's special on Teddy Roosevelt last night :

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt made his final run for the presidency on an independent, progressive platform after his hand-picked successor from 1908, Taft, bungled the job. Teddy campaigned on the crazy notions that the elderly should be supported and cared for; that children should probably be in school and not, say, working in coal mines; and that women, of all things, should be allowed to vote.

He was defeated (and obviously Taft, too) by Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic challenger who also laid claim to the progressive throne. As the leader of the country, what Wilson said carried the weight and authority not just of the presidency, but of progressives as well. For now, all you need to remember is that Wilson was a progressive, and he was President. Onward.

In 1915, DW Griffith made "Birth of a Nation." If you haven't seen the film, it's a silent movie about the Civil War and carpetbagging, but mostly about the rise of the KKK in response to unbridled aggression by black men - especially towards white women. Tickets cost an amazing $2, but audiences were treated to an astonishingly long and technically complex film containing many milestones in filmmaking. It was voted one of the top 100 movies of all time, and we'll assume, just for the purpose of tonight's discussion, that it was voted in on technical merits and not its message. I mean, the film sucks.

The suckiness centers around how blacks are represented. The actors portraying the villians are whites made up in blackface, and they are all lazy or sexual predators unable to control their primal urges.

The NAACP, to their credit, picketed and protested as best they could. But those white audiences who saw the film, especially those who had never interacted with black people, were undoubtedly left with a strong impression that all blacks behaved like those in the film. Meanwhile, minstrel shows - again, whites in blackface - playing rural towns in the north also had the same effect.

So essentially, much of white America's introduction to and impression of black people came not from blacks, but from whites portraying blacks. We don't need to get into a great big discussion about the psychological importance of alienating the Other, or even how xenophobia is the key to understanding racial stereotyping in America.

All we really need to know is what Woodrow Wilson said about the movie after seeing a private screening in the White House.

"It is like history writ in lightning," he said.

Here we have a "progressive" president endorsing the most blatantly racist piece of mass communication ever produced to that point (and arguably ever - the KKK still uses "Birth of a Nation" as a recruiting tool to this day).

I'm no media scholar, but I'm willing to bet audiences weren't quite as savvy about questioning the sources or content of messages as we are today. Sure, some audience members saw the film for what it was... but most probably witnessed this incredible new technology delivering a message in such a dazzling and entertaining way that it was difficult NOT to believe what they saw. Even if their exposure to blacks had been limited to seemingly innocuous minstrel shows (we'll ignore the problem of blackface for tonight), where blacks were portrayed as slapstick buffoons at best, "Birth of a Nation" reinforced the message that blacks were uncivilized; they were uncontrollable. They were a threat.

I remember watching "Birth of a Nation" in the undergrad library at the University of Illinois and thinking that a whole lot of race problems (but obviously not all) could have been nipped in the bud if that film had never seen the light of day. Seriously, if you've never seen it, try to get a copy. I don't think I'm being melodramatic about this at all.

Alrighty. I hope you get the point, even though this little tirade only scratches the surface of the film's problematic elements. Kindly excuse the vagaries and reductivist language - it's been 8 years since I gave this a lot of thought.

Back to "Beowulf" and "The Battle of Maldon."


Blogger Leta said...

Okay, I am forced as a former English major and current pedant to do this, so I apologize. Thiefs?

I stumbled across your blog when I was mousing around and really enjoy reading what you have to say. Count me among your readership.


6:49 AM  
Blogger P said...

Ya got me. I thought I remembered scenes depicting theivery; I could be making that up. I have a fairly active imagination.

Anyhoo, I edited it out.


7:53 AM  
Blogger P said...

*thievery, not theivery.


7:54 AM  
Blogger P said...


It just occurred to me that you might have been questioning my spelling of "thief" in the plural, not whether they existed in the film.


12:26 PM  
Blogger Leta said...

Well, yes, it really was just the spelling.

On the plus side, the name "Leonardo Di-Crap-io" is going to amuse me for the rest of the day and your points on "Birth of a Nation" are well taken.

Have a stress free weekend......


2:58 PM  

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