[Mb-civic] The Worth of 'A Nation

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Sun Sep 19 12:27:16 PDT 2004



The Worth of 'A Nation'

D.W. Griffith's epic has seared emotions for almost 90 years. A pioneering
work of filmmaking? A shameful racist diatribe? In many ways, it has
relevance for 2004.
 By Greg Braxton
 Times Staff Writer

 Sep 19 2004

 On Aug. 9, a rare public showing of D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic,
"The Birth of a Nation," was abruptly canceled. The owner of the Silent
Movie Theatre had received threats of arson and worse in anonymous phone
messages, and activists and community groups, including the National Assn.
for the Advancement of Colored People, had called for protests.

 Two weeks later, in an attempt to comprehend the continuing controversy
surrounding the film, the Los Angeles Times held a screening and subsequent
round-table discussion. Invited to participate were film scholar and
historian David Shepard, who helped produce the film's release on DVD and
had been scheduled to introduce the screening at the Silent Movie Theatre;
community activist and KPFK-FM radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who held a
news conference outside the theater that night; UCLA history professor Ellen
Dubois; and Aaron McGruder, creator of the acerbic comic strip "The
Boondocks" and coauthor with filmmaker Reginald Hudlin of a graphic novel
titled, coincidentally, "Birth of a Nation." Times staff writer Greg Braxton

 The screening of Shepard's own print of the film, with live accompaniment
by musician Rick Friend, lasted more than three hours. It was uncomfortable,
and not only because of the hard Times auditorium chairs. Among the images
in the film:

    €     A scene set in the black-majority South Carolina House of
Representatives of 1871, in which barefooted legislators swig from pint
bottles and eat fried chicken.

    €     A young white woman leaping from a cliff to her death rather than
be touched by a black soldier who has pursued her.

    €     An extended close-up of "America's Sweetheart" Lillian Gish bound
and gagged, a threatening black fist near her face.

    €     Hooded Ku Klux Klan members riding to the rescue of a white family
and, in another scene, with guns drawn, preventing black voters from going
to the polls.

 And yet the filmmaking craft is undeniable. There are moments of great
emotional tenderness as well as masterfully choreographed battle scenes and
thrilling action editing.

 The discussion that followed was heated. Accusations of disrespect and
long-windedness flew across the table. Two participants threatened to leave.
There were tangential skirmishes on issues from media ownership to the
presidential campaign to ignorant audiences. But ultimately, there was
agreement ‹ that 90 years later, "The Birth of a Nation" still has the power
to stun, and that the legacy of slavery in this country has yet to be

 UCLA history professor Ellen Dubois, left, "Boondocks" creator Aaron
McGruder, activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson and film preservationist David
Shepard discussed the film.

 An abridged transcript:

Can you briefly sum up your assessment, your personal assessment of the
value of this film?

Shepard: I think the film is a pioneering work historically. I think the
film sums up the level of motion picture art as of 1915. I think the film is
a political film, which makes a statement that people listened to, probably
for the first time in the history of motion pictures. There it is in three

 Earl, you say you've seen this film several times.

Hutchinson: Probably one of the best assessments I ever heard, someone said
to me one time about "Birth of a Nation," and this is a film
historian/filmmaker, "Why in God's name did one of the great cinematic gems,
in terms of innovative techniques, in terms of editing, in terms of
influence, from an artistic standpoint" ‹ we'll get to the political in a
minute ‹ "why did it have to be, also, one of the most racist films, if not
the most racist film, ever made?"

 If this had been a third-rate film, a 10th-rate film, a lousy film, we
wouldn't be sitting here now talking about it. It would have long since been
buried, it would have long since been forgotten. But because it did break
such new ground, and because it had such an overwhelming impact politically,
in terms of the racial mores of the time, that just drove it. As a matter of
fact, I would even take it a step further. Probably the two greatest films
in American cinematic history are also two of the most racist, racially
stereotypical and loaded films. "Birth of a Nation" obviously is one. The
other one, "Gone With the Wind." Basically, where you see the Southern view
of America, the Southern view of race, the Southern view of the Civil War.

 I think the other thing that gives ["The Birth of a Nation"] a lot of power
and resonance is the stereotypes that are propagated. We see some of those
same stereotypes that are still having a life of their own, 90 years later.
African Americans are portrayed as clowns and buffoons ‹ we still see a lot
of that today in certain areas of art and certainly we see that in some
sitcoms and movies. The criminality ‹ we see that. The dysfunctionality ‹ we
see that. The ignorance ‹ we see that. The sexual degeneracy of African
Americans. Those things are very aptly depicted by Griffith, and guess what?
They still have a life of their own today.

 Ellen, have you ever seen this film before?

Dubois: No.

 So what was your reaction?

 Dubois: Incredibly interesting. I absolutely agree with Earl, which is, one
of my reactions is to the power of the film ‹ which, by the way, I don't
think is an argument not to see it. To me, the equivalent is, we do see
[Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 Nazi propaganda film] "Triumph of the Will,"
because it helps us to understand anti-Semitism. And conversely, in 50 years
we're going to want people to look at Fox [News] so that they understand how
the world we are in got to be.

 Now, the big point I want to make is, I don't see this film as a film
historian, so my case is not the same as David's. It's not that it's
important for the history of film. I think it's important for the history of
the United States, and I think it's important to understand that it doesn't
tell us about the Civil War era. It tells us about the early 20th century,
and a period that is crucial in translating the heritage of slavery and
Reconstruction into something that lives in modern post-slavery America.

 So this also connects with what you're saying, [Earl]. I felt that the
movie really tells us, you should pardon the expression, how far we've come.
We cannot see "Birth of a Nation" without seeing it as a racial film.
There's a lot of ways in which I think the people who [first] saw it, saw it
as a film about war and bloodshed, and the racial framework of the film is
so unquestioned ‹ for instance, that intermarriage is disgusting. It's just
there, as if people who intermarry produce monster mulattoes. I'm a
historian of women, actually, and one of the things that was interesting to
me is how much race and sex are interrelated here. The roles that women
take, that way that race takes on a sexual form, and sex as a racial
expression ‹ I would just adore showing this film to students and teaching
them to see what's in it.

Aaron, have you ever seen this film before?

McGruder: I've seen the highlights. We studied "Birth of a Nation" at the
University of Maryland ‹ we didn't watch the whole film, but we certainly
discussed it, read about it and saw clips. So part of why I'm a little bit
lukewarm to this whole discussion is because in 2004, we're going to sit
around and we're all going to say stuff probably that has already been said
and written a million times, and we're just going to keep repeating it over
and over again. We're going to talk about the film's significance with
regard to Hollywood, and then we'll talk about how it's not historically
accurate, but, and we'll delve into how the stereotypes continually exist.
So I'm like, what next?

 What strikes me about watching the film is that I actually thought it
showed how far we haven't come, given that the right wing still uses the
exact same tactics to win its case. They still pretend like everything they
did to blacks, blacks somehow are doing to them ‹ that they are embattled,
that they are struggling against some kind of unfairness, that God is on
their side. But the thing that really strikes me about this and "Gone With
the Wind," and this is the part that I don't hear people talking about, is
that, way beyond the degradation of black people, what this film also
pioneered, and I think we continue to see to this day as well, is the
delusions of grandeur that the white man has. It's not just about how he
tears down the black man, it's how he builds himself up. Both depictions,
black and white, are equally unrealistic.

 Now, here's the problem with the idea that this film creates an opportunity
for discussion: Americans are predominately ignorant. We don't read. We
don't really have any knowledge of history. And so there is not going to be
any intelligent discussion, on the whole, outside of this room.

 Well, I don't think it's the film that we discuss so much as the reaction
to this film.

McGruder: Whenever I hear "Why are we watching it? Why are we still talking
about it?" it's always, "Well, it's going to be a great discussion." And I
say, to hell with the discussion. Because people liked Archie Bunker ‹ not
because they understood that it was an attack on racism, they liked him
because he was a racist. That's how America is. It's still like this to this
day. People don't listen to Rush Limbaugh to have an intelligent discussion
on race. They listen to Rush Limbaugh because they hate black people and
they find some entertainment that supports that.

 But people didn't find Archie Bunker dangerous. The reason the screening
didn't take place at the Silent Movie Theatre is because there was such an
overwhelming protest against it.

McGruder: Nobody has a right to do that.

Do you feel that this film should be seen in a public place?

McGruder: No, not if the people don't want to! Somehow, we keep acting like
there's something called free speech in this country. It doesn't exist.
Stuff gets censored by communities and private corporations all the time. It
happens every other week in my strip.

Dubois: And we defend and promote it?

McGruder: I say that we can't be hypocritical and act like we have to show
this because America shows everything, because we never hide anything, we
never destroy things that we find offensive and we never bury the truth.

[Š after some skirmishing on censorship and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit
9/11" Š]

 Let me take it over to David for a minute. How often is this film seen at
all? How often is it seen publicly? What happens when it's exhibited in a
public forum?

Shepard: Well, I've not for many years heard of a situation in which it was
not exhibited because of prior restraint. When it is exhibited, it's usually
seen, I think, as a historical curiosity, but it's widely available on video
and DVD. The film is out of copyright. I produced a DVD edition of it, which
has been among the most commercially successful things that we ever did, and
I actually had to be talked into doing it. I did it along with a half-hour
documentary that I think presents the film in a very balanced way, but I'm
surprised how many copies it sold. There's no way, of course, to know how
many people have seen it, have rented it, have copied it, have passed it on
to other people, but it certainly does seem to still have a life, at least
on the margins.

McGruder: And I would venture to say that all these people are not going out
and buying this film for the sake of academic discussion. This is a film
that ultimately makes white people feel good about being white, and that
type of thing always sells.

[Š after more skirmishing over lengthy answers, and a threat of leaving the
table Š]

Hutchinson: I think the censorship issue is a big issue, and has to be

Let me ask this, then: Do you feel that this is a dangerous film and there
are circumstances in which it should not be seen?

Hutchinson: Yes, films can be dangerous. They pluck on emotional chords.
They can infuriate. They can make political statements, and they in fact can
do great damage. "Birth of a Nation," when it did come out, and I'm sure
you're aware of this, the NAACP mounted massive protests against this film.
By the way, not in New York, but here. The first protest was not in New York
or Boston, but in Los Angeles. The second thing is, about the film, it was a
recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan. We saw an explosion after that of not
only Klan violence ‹ lynchings, beatings and so forth ‹ but also the
expansion of the Klan.

McGruder: People died because of this film.

Hutchinson: You're absolutely right about that, Aaron. And also, [as] you
mentioned about Southerners, the Klan, white men, it did consciously and
deliberately put them on a pedestal, elevate their politics, stature, their
image. Griffith was very clever. He knew what he was doing.

 I want to come back to this, though. Are there any circumstances ever that
this film shouldn't be shown? I would say no. And from Day One, our position
[on the Silent Movie Theatre screening] was: If you're going to show the
film, it should be done under certain circumstances, where you're there, a
professor, historian, to actually give it the balance and put it in
perspective. Yes, it could have educational value, as a testament of what
went on then, a look at America, but also, as Aaron is saying, what we can
still see 90 years later in America.

Let me ask Aaron this: You were visibly reacting to the film while it was
going on.

McGruder: Yeah.

Don't you think that white audiences and black audiences could view this
film and see some of the attitudes and the politics being presented as so
over the top and so grossly exaggerated that it wouldn't carry any power?

McGruder: I know very personally the power of fiction. If you understand the
psychology of your audience, you can sell them anything. I sell angry black
politics to 20 million white people a day. The problem is that once
something becomes real, meaning you put it in print, you shoot it out to the
world ‹ once it's real and in your head, you go, "Well, some part of it has
to be true. I mean, they can't just make it all up, right?" It's an old
black-and-white [film], it's about history, and so it ingrains notions in
your head. You go, "Well, I'm sure somebody kicked their shoes up in the
Legislature and took a sip of alcohol," or "Maybe the slaves were kind of
happy, because they seemed to be dancing."

 And that's why I think it's a lot more dangerous than we are giving it
credit for. A lot of people got killed because of this movie. My gut
reaction, when I see people defending it and wanting to talk about it in a
certain context and all, is it just reinforces to me that our lives and our
history and everything that we are about just has very little value in this
country. Because I could very easily pick up a camera and make the
equivalent of this movie in reverse, and I would like to see if everyone was
talking about how there should be no censorship. America has a very
interesting way of censoring ideas, and that is to prevent them from ever
getting made and distributed in the first place.

 [Š after further skirmishing over monopolization of the discussion, and a
counter charge of impatient "huffing and puffing," and another motion to
leave the table Š]

Ellen, what do you think about the sophistication of today's young people or
today's audiences in terms of whether Hollywood ‹

 Dubois: I know how uneducated people are, and their ability to read media
and see what they see. [To McGruder:] Maybe the difference is you're a
cartoonist and I'm an educator. I do believe that people should learn how to
develop skills to be able to see things more deeply and more clearly. I
really hate the idea that it's all lies and we just get to pick the lies
that we like better ‹ I feel particularly terrified of that approach to
reality in August of 2004.

 I actually think about how this film can be seen by ignorant, uneducated
white people, which is, you try to describe what the history of racism was
in this country and they don't really believe you. And perhaps you're going
to find what I say really untenable, but the historical nature of the racism
in this film is such that I do think when regular, not academically
sophisticated people, both black and white, see it, they'll be horrified by
it. And I think that's helpful, because it teaches them. It's one of the
reasons that I think people need to learn about slavery over and over and
over again, freshly and with power.

McGruder: In the abstract, I agree. I guess the problem is, having attended
a variety of schools since I was born, some largely black, most
predominantly white, some public, some private, I don't see where slavery is
being taught properly. I don't see where America is exploring the horrors of
slavery. And again, a lot of this, in terms of the psychology of slavery and
the psychology of white America today, it's not just about trying to
convince the world that we are not animals, it's about also trying to
convince the world that the white man is not God. And it's not just about
bringing us up ‹ somebody has to take the white American down a notch or

 Now, if we actually taught what racism and slavery were really like in this
country when kids are young, instead of I have to specialize in
Afro-American studies and then at 19 or 20 somebody will tell me what really
went down, then I would say this argument is correct, that we can see this
film, and we're an intelligent, literate society. But we don't have that
education. You have to go out of your way to find it. We don't equip
Americans to intelligently analyze anything, anything at all!

Dubois: How will we do that?

McGruder: I think what we do is, we take a hard look at the news media, and
the corporations behind it, and the money that is behind the information we
receive. I think we take a hard look at the educational system in this
country and then, in 20 years, you might be able to show this movie and have
an intelligent discussion about it.

Dubois: Twenty years?

McGruder: The point is, without that, showing the movie is only going to
breed hate.

David, when you have seen this screened, or seen it in any sort of form,
what is the reaction?

Shepard: As far as I know, it's only run in, essentially, museums and
semiacademic kinds of settings. In fact, to me, the protest that precluded
the screening at the Silent Movie Theatre was a huge backfire ‹ 220 people
would have seen it, at a place which is dedicated to the presentation of
silent movies. I was told that there were long waiting lists to get copies
from Blockbuster. It made an event which would not otherwise have occurred.

McGruder: When you say that somebody is going to stand up when you screen
this film and put it in the proper historical context, I'm wondering who
that is and what their proper historical context is, because my historical
context could be slightly different. If you start by saying this movie got a
lot of innocent people killed ‹

Shepard: How do you know that?

McGruder: Well, there's a great book called "Without Sanctuary" [by James
Allen et al]. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's a photo documentary
of lynching in this country. [People] were being lynched because of this
idea of the black male rapist, a very commonly used justification for
killing innocent people. This image of the white woman throwing herself off
the cliff to save herself from this crazy black Kobe Bryant type was
ingrained in society at the time, and became a justification for the
slaughtering of innocent human beings. Now, that's the historical context I
would put it in.

Earl, what do you want to say about censorship?

Hutchinson: I think censorship is inherently dangerous. I think it is a
slippery slope. We protested some of the slapstick, insulting sitcoms,
insulting films made by African American writers, directors, producers, and
of course Hollywood, that also are loaded with the same kind of stereotypes
‹ so we are equal opportunity, looking at stereotypes and calling it as we
see it. But one thing we've always been careful of, and I wish everyone to
be careful about "Birth of a Nation": If you go out there and say don't go
see it, don't show it, I can tell you what's going to happen, right away.

Dubois: It's like telling a kid not to see something.

Hutchinson [to Shepard]: You said 220 people wanted to get into that theater
and see it. Let me tell you, we were out there that night, and I can't tell
you the venom from people that came up and said, "How dare you, how dare you
stop us," not knowing that we weren't stopping them from going in to see it,
just simply saying, "If you go in to see it, be informed about what you're
seeing." I'm sure that you would have brought another perspective and

Dubois: I want to respond to something Aaron said: the idea that the two
points of view are that this has to be defended because it's a great moment
in movie history and this can't be seen because it represents historical
racism. I don't think those are the two positions. I think this movie should
be seen because it represents the history of racism, not because it
represents film.

McGruder: And what I'm saying is, I just don't care if it's not shown or
not. I'm not saying ban it. I'm just saying I'm not going to fight to defend
it, because I know so many things are never shown to the American people.

 In terms of its continuing power and impact on society, what is the place
of "Birth of a Nation" in the future?

Shepard: Let me answer this indirectly. When I was teaching, I used to ask
large classes, hundreds of people, "How many people have read Sinclair
Lewis? How many people have read Booth Tarkington?" Sinclair Lewis was the
first American to win a Nobel Prize. These were major artists in their day.
And essentially nobody has read them. You can ask a class of 300 people,
"What is the significance of Dunkirk?" and if they're teenagers, nobody
knows. So "The Birth of a Nation" is part of a tremendous accumulation of
historical artifacts which by and large don't interest people today. And
yet, like Booth Tarkington or Scott Fitzgerald, it has a place for those who
are interested, and those who are interested probably have the critical
skills to assess it.

Hutchinson: As long as we have a racial dynamic that's unresolved in this
country, I think there will always be a place for "Birth of a Nation." And
also "Gone With the Wind." I think they will always be seen, certainly by
film buffs, critics, historians, sociologists, those that specialize in race
relations, as the films, the crème de la crème of films that really show
America, the racial face of America. How it's seen and interpreted, I don't
know. It's going to be filtered through the eyes, the experiences, the
brain, the life forces of the person that views it.

Shepard: Ninety years later.

Hutchinson: Ninety years later. Frankly, I think it's a shame that this kind
of film is there. Not that it should be banned, not that it didn't make a
statement, only in a sense it's still held up as the American icon. I would
really like to have seen "The Godfather" being held up, but then of course,
Italian Americans might have a dispute about that in terms of stereotypes.

Dubois: You can see that on HBO.

 Just an aside, you know what I think would have been great? I think that
instead of doing something that could be misrepresented as censorship, what
should have happened is that the NAACP in L.A. use this as an opportunity to
instruct people about the history of the NAACP, about the length of the
battle against "Birth of a Nation." People don't know that battles against
lynching are over a hundred years old. That could have flipped the whole

 Having said that, to answer your question, every college U.S. history
textbook mentions "The Birth of a Nation." It has to. It's an event. I can't
believe anybody here doesn't think that it needs to be there for people who
are serious about learning about history. Now, the question is, where do you
draw the line? Do I get to study it because I have a PhD, but it's so
dangerous, like pornography, that somebody who doesn't have the credentials
is not allowed?

Aaron, you get the final word.

McGruder: If this was 1915, and I had some position of authority, I would
have stopped the movie from being seen. I'd have dragged all the filmmakers
out in the street and shot them. That's me. But today, I think it's almost a
moot point. In the same way that you see "Star Wars" in about every major
blockbuster movie that comes out, I think both from a filmmaking perspective
and from a racial perspective you see "Birth of a Nation" in everything. It
has transcended movies and shaped the way America sees itself, its history
and its black people, and irreversibly so.



 Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

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