Now that George W. Bush has entered a second term, I felt like it was time to dig up a classic of American cinema, one that is considered by many critics and historians to be one of the greatest films of all time. It was the first to utilize many of the elements directors still use today, and it is reported to be the first film shown at the White House. I’m talking about D.W. Griffith’s “The Clansman,” based on Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s novel of the same name. You may know it better as “The Birth of a Nation.”
To argue this film’s technical prowess is pointless. It did what it did, and it did it well enough to make a lasting impact. Unfortunately, the film also did a splendid job of demonizing black people. (Of course, most of the black roles were white guys in blackface, but that is a whole other subject.)
The 1915 film made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan, and it brought racism right into the laps of a moviegoing public who shelled out the astronomical price of $2.00 a ticket to see it. It wasn’t until 56 years later that blacks in the cinema were vindicated with Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” and that only came about by a miracle of Bill Cosby because Lord knows the studios wanted nothing to do with the film. (Interestingly enough, Griffith’s movie not only spawned a revolution in filmmaking, it also brought some big bucks into the land of cinema. The studio owners who rejected Van Peebles’ movie were the symbolic children of Klansmen who were good at keeping blacks in submissive roles. It should be of no surprise that Van Peebles couldn’t get the dough.)
I’ve only seen Griffith’s lovely bit of racism once. It was in a college film class, and the teacher made a point ahead of time to warn us about the film’s racist nature, which actually caused a few alcohol damaged students to giggle whenever it reared its ugly head on screen. I saw it that one time and never really felt the need to see it again. I watched it objectively, but I also watched it knowing that films are never really divorced from reality and the culture that spawned them, which brings up an interesting point.
Other cultures respect film more so than American culture. Our culture is the only one that really worships concepts of film, however, but not the art. That’s why people dismiss writers and directors, but compare real-life events to the movies, quote them all the time, and buy all sorts of products tied in with them. Even California’s governor, a man most likely elected solely because he is a star, is known as the Governator — a nod to his Terminator role.
In other words, we don’t understand or respect the art behind “The Birth of a Nation,” but we sure get the idea behind black men stalking white women. That stuck with the average moviegoer more than the concept of close-ups, so what does that say about us as a culture? Nothing good, I assure you.
Griffith’s film, like the novel it was based on, came from the racist ideas that form the backbone of our country and its policies. In turn, the film was used by the KKK as a recruiting tool, which obviously worked because the Klan is still around today (though I find that the most dangerous racists wear three piece suits instead of sheets). The film came from American culture, and it influenced that culture. For better or for worse, it had an impact, and it still does, though few young people have seen it. Compare this with Van Peebles’ film, and some interesting similarities begin to appear.
When “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” came out, it was the first film to really portray a black man dealing with a racist society head-on. It was born of a society that never really shed the racism that made up the bulk of “The Birth of a Nation,” and it was required viewing for Black Panther members. It also changed the face of independent films and was the most successful of the bunch that year.
The two films had similar impacts, and they share a history in racism, but their tones are totally different. One was the problem, while the other was one of the solutions. You decide which is which depending on your own social views. I think I know where I stand, though.
When I talk about the greatest films of all time, I never mention “The Birth of a Nation.” It’s not that I don’t respect its technical achievements. I do, but there’s more to it than that. I ignore it because I loathe to have to say, “It was a great film, but …” When I talk about racist cinema, however, I bring it up in full force because I believe that its racism had more of an influence on the general moviegoing public than its technical aspects because of how our culture embraces film.
The overriding theme of “The Birth of a Nation” was that blacks were evil and the Klan would save the day. This was more easily grasped than the film’s breakthrough style, and it justified some people’s fears and gave racists more misguided pride. (“Stand up and be counted/Show the world that you’re a man/Stand up and be counted/Go with the Ku Klux Klan/We are a sacred brotherhood who love our country true/We can always be counted on when there’s a job to do/We serve our homeland day and night to keep it always free/And proudly wear our robes of white protecting liberty” goes one old Klan song. The film evokes similar emotions and utilizes those very images.) Has much changed? No.
Here’s the America we live in today, exemplified by movies so as to not lose anyone. We’ve got a white America that believes all of black America is like “Menace II Society.” We’ve got other white Americans who claim they aren’t racist, but like the one character in “Office Space,” they lock the car door when it gets a little too close. And then there’s the Klansmen, who are stuck in 1915’s birthing. They view black America in an all together different stereotype than the “Menace II Society” one. On the flipside of that coin, we have a white America who is sick of being represented by all the worst examples of their “peers.” I can’t think of a movie comparison for those people. I don’t know if they’ve been represented well. Maybe they are like Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard character in “American History X.” They came from a dark place, but have finally come to understand that we’re all in this together no matter what our skin looks like. But what film represents today’s black America?
Sad to say, I think most of black America is still in Sweetback’s world. The cops haven’t gotten any less racist. The Man is still out there. The dogs are still trained to seek and destroy. Black men and women are still angry. Maybe some of the heat is off, but not enough of it to declare the war on racism won. 1971 wasn’t that long ago. If the remnants of 1915 haven’t vanished yet, how does anyone expect 1971 to have disappeared?
“The Birth of a Nation” brought some good with plenty of bad. It influenced film in many positive ways and culture in many negatives (though it isn’t solely to blame for continuing racism). I’d love to think that the film’s racist elements had no effect on society, but when the KKK thought enough of them to use the film as its version of Uncle Sam — that says something. And like the filmmaking elements it introduced, I don’t think the racism it portrayed is ever going to go away. I just hope it’s not another 56 years before a new Sweetback comes around to set things straight.
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Posted on January 27, 2005 in Features by Doug Brunell
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