Sunday, August 30, 2009

Birth of a Nation

Since earlier in the week when Republican Lynn Jenkins made her racist comment about the Republican Party needing their 'great white hope' to challenge Obama, I have been hip deep in study on the subject. I recommended that anyone who wants to see a great Ken Burns documentary on the era get a hold of 'Unforgivable Blackness: The Jack Johnson Story'. I mentioned before that the term comes from turn of the 20th Century America where the search was on for a white boxer who could reclaim the world's heavyweight title from the first black man to ever hold it, Jack Johnson. Not able to beat Johnson in the boxing ring, the courts were used to strip him of his title for his relationships with white women. The term 'miscegenation' was used to describe such a mixed coupling. Throughout America there were calls for legislatures to pass laws outlawing marriages between the races. Arriving into this politically and racially charged atmosphere came what can arguably be called the 'greatest' film of the silent era, the immensely groundbreaking and popular 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), Hollywood's first true 'blockbuster'. D.W. Griffith was a true giant in the history of movie making and 'Birth' was his magnum opus. Never before had a movie been this long or this expertly shot and edited. Its advanced the technology of film in a way that cannot be overstated. At the same time, however, its a work of diabolical evil (or as Roger Ebert called it, a great film that argues for evil). It told the story of the KKK (yes them) and made them the hero of the picture that was ostensibly about the dangers of race mixing. It message was that every upstanding white person had the duty to prevent this from ever happening. It's very strange to watch a movie in which the Klan are the heroes of the picture and that makes the film a very important relic in the history of the civil rights movement. The movie was extremely popular and the most watch movie of all time up to that point. In fact, it was the first movie shown at the White House to then President Woodrow Wilson and his all white cabinet. Its message was one that a majority of white Americans held and, in 1915, they were the majority group in the country. The film justified and validated all the prejudices whites had about blacks. The blacks in the film were evil rapists who were ever on the look out for a white girl to sexual exploit. The film was effective propaganda for those who saw little wrong with fermenting such passions against blacks. So racist was the production that the black roles were played by white actors in black face make-up. The Nazis in WWII knew full well the value that movies could serve to advance ones cause no matter how skewed or evil their point of view. It would take a generation for the damaged this film did to the cause of racial justice to be diminished. It was that powerful a message. If you are interested the entire film in on 'You Tube'.

"The film is controversial due to its interpretation of history. University of Houston historian Steven Mintz summarizes its message as follows: Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government.[13] The film suggested that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, which was depicted as endangered by abolitionists, freedmen, and carpetbagging Republican politicians from the North."


Margaret Benbow said...

Thank you for your fine post--you put your finger exactly on why watching this movie is so disturbing: Birth of a Nation is bursting with great, innovative filmmaking combined with the vilest, most hateful and disgusting racism. In that way it reminded me of "Triumph of the Will," Leni Riefenstahl's doc glorifying the Nazis.

themom said...

It's been years since I have seen someone critique Birth of a Nation. es, a great film production, but the message of hate and racism was a whole different twist. Excellent post.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I think the connections I am making between the term "great white hope" and its historical context is something everyone has to know about. I have no doubt that mass rebublican love for 'Triumph of the Will' is coming soon.