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Birth of a Nation (1915): A New Perspective

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bdp
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Postby bdp » May 29th, 2008, 3:11 pm

I just finished watching Ken Burns' documentary 'Unforgivable Blackness' about the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. When Johnson won the title white America was outraged to learn that he preferred the company of white women, and not any single one but an entourage. It was in this period that Griffith made BoaN, with its obsession with miscegenation, and it could be taken as a warning to contemporary audiences about the 'dangers' of race mixing and taking a complacent attitude about it.

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Postby myrnaloyisdope » May 29th, 2008, 9:23 pm

That's a great documentary about an absolutely fascinating man.

Was there any sort of production code in place by the time of Broken Blossoms?

I find it absurd that a movie that proclaims itself pro-miscegenation, would cast Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese lead.

I know that in spite of Sessue Hayakawa's immense popularity around this time he was forced to play the doomed lover due to his race, and the lack of Asian female leads.

But was miscegenation strictly forbidden on-screen? I know the Hays Code did forbid it, but in 1915 what was in place?

drednm

Postby drednm » May 29th, 2008, 10:18 pm

In reading the Stokes book on BOAN I find it almost hilarious that all the HUZZAH about the film resulted in almost ZERO legal actions against it. Many of the black and white people screaming about it had not even seen it (what a surprise), and a couple in particular, May Childs Nerney and William Trotter, come off as hysterical idiots with personal agendas. The NAACP was ridiculously ineffective in its legal pursuits.

The great majority of Americans who saw the film in 1915, regardless of geography, saw it as a masterpiece.

Although Stokes writes the book, starting from the premise that Griffith was a racist (he's not at all neutral), he doesn't win me over with his PC "logic."

The body of Griffith's work speaks for itself; Stokes can deconstruct the film til the cows come, home but ultimately he doesn't make his point or win his argument except with those who assume from the getgo that BOAN is purposely racist.

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Postby Synnove » May 30th, 2008, 3:57 am

Are they merely making assumptions, or are they basing their opinions on what they've seen with their own eyes? Or are they too PC, prejudiced or ignorant to make a good judgement? You can't declare everyone who disagrees with you to be a hysterical idiot.

If it's on purpose or not, I don't know. MichiganJ has written an excellent post about it.

Even back in the day, there were critics who pointed out the racism, although as you say they weren't in the majority. I don't think the fact that most people thought this groundbreaking movie was a masterpiece and weren't bothered by its racism, changes that it is racist.

It's well known that racism was very common in society in 1915. But there seems to be a problem when you have to attach those views to actual people. It's hard to accept that one's own great-grandparents, or one's favourite film maker, might have been a racist. And you might grasp that the Ku Klux Klan numbered 6 million people in the 20's, but when you have to think about how many people that really is, and that many members were local politicians, and what the clan was actually doing, that is also hard to accept. If a murderous group like the KKK could have so many members and influence politics in the 20's, then racism was a part of people's mindset. Of course it was. Otherwise there wouldn't exist a problem to this day, would there?

There is much more general knowledge about racism and its effects today, than there was in 1915. But if we can't acknowledge what The Birth of a Nation says now, then things haven't changed as much as I thought they had. Or else, people are willing to cut Griffith some slack because he was a pioneer.

The most successful woman director in history made propaganda for Hitler. Charles Lindberg became a Nazi, as well as number of people who won the Nobel Prize. The pioneers aren't always heroes. Nor are they just villains, of course.

I don't think anyone here is saying it isn't a brilliant film. It was one of the first silents I ever saw, and then I couldn't appreciate how groundbreaking it was, but after having seen some other films from that era I can understand its innovations more. Even the first time I saw it, I was astonished by how modern it seemed, because, as Kevin Brownlow said, its techniques have been copied a million times since. You don't have to be apologist about its ideology in order to discuss its influence and merits, do you? This isn't a simple question of whether people are being PC idiots or not, it's a serious issue, which needs to be treated with care.

drednm

Postby drednm » May 30th, 2008, 6:08 am

I've read all the posts and there are some good comments here....

All I'm saying is that given the body of Griffith's work, it's unfair to judge him a racist based on one film. Putting Griffith in the context of his time should be ample explanation for his choice in making this film rather than sifting him through our contemporary PC filters.

In the question of film censorship, my first question is always HAVE YOU SEEN IT? When the answer is no, all credibility is lost.

Stokes' book shows BOAN and perhaps the first serious attempt at film censorship (something still happening today). Griffith championed first amendment rights for film (in general). It's interesting that even in 1915 film was treated differently than books as a form of artistic expression. But aside from being a great film director, Griffith is important as perhaps the first champion of NON censorship.

Stokes' historical account of BOAN and its showings is fascinating since the film had to be "passed" by local censorship boards. In some cities/states certain "edits" were required. In some locales there were no such requirements and of course the film was outrightly banned in some locations. More often than not these local "power struggles" had more to do with politics than with the film itself.

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Postby Synnove » May 30th, 2008, 7:30 am

The Birth of a Nation wasn't just one of Griffith's films, it was his first great masterpiece, and he invested a great deal in making it, without having any idea if it would be a success. The story was obviously of importance to him, because of his own background. Like MichiganJ said, he never saw fit to edit out any of the extreme racism in the film later - either because he thought it would be hypocritical, or because he still held the same views.

I don't think any of his other movies of importance disproved that he had racist attitudes towards black people. He didn't touch on that subject very often after The Birth of a Nation. Broken Blossoms is about a different conflict, with a different history. Intolerance isn't about racial intolerance at all, and His Trust I and II confirms The Birth's stance that good black people are the ones who are willing to remain slaves. I think the one film of interest in this case is the biograph short he made where the Ku Klux Klan was depicted as the enemy. That seems to show that he was more interested in a good, action-packed story than in ideology. In the documentary about Griffith they said that the KKK riding to the rescue was about the same as cowboys riding to the rescue, and that might be true. The awareness about racism wasn't the same, and if Griffith is going to be judged, it must be within the context of his time, I agree.

But I think that the mind that made The Birth of a Nation must either have been that of a passionate racist, or a person who was oblivious to, or didn't care about the feelings of the people who he depicted as savages in his film.

Even though people's actions and views must be seen within the context of their time, the views themselves shouldn't be accepted because 'those were the times'. They are still reprehensible. So even though, as you say, it might be wrong to condemn Griffith as a person entirely because of The Birth of the Nation, what the film says still shouldn't be excused. I think there are some things in history that we shouldn't forgive and condone. We have to learn something from it.

I'm sorry if that sounds a bit moralizing. I sometimes wonder to what an extent we should hold people accountable for their actions. That isn't an easy question.

I'm all with you about censorship. I also agree with Jondaris that to not watch The Birth of a Nation as a protest against racism is really stupid.

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Postby MichiganJ » May 30th, 2008, 9:26 am

I still believe that Griffith never intended to make a racist film and was confounded by the accusations when the film was released. I suspect that confronted by the vitriol (coupled with the film’s mega-success), Griffith felt the need to protect his work of art (which is what Birth is, among other things). It’s interesting that instead of confronting the racism charges, he instead took up the banner of censorship. (And since the U.S. Government didn’t see film as “speech” at the time, there was no First Amendment protection against any kind of censorship.) But, while a noble effort on his part (and yet another off-shot on the powers of Birth), Griffith’s anti-censorship crusade doesn’t make Birth any less racist.

While it’s possible (even likely) that Griffith didn’t see the racism in his film initially, it’s hard to fathom that he couldn’t see it with the passage of time. I mean, the film essentially brought about the rebirth of the Klan; something on which, Griffith is remarkably silent.

Even in the context of the time, The Birth of Nation was considered racist, at least in the minds of a lot of people. (Why else, all the hubbub?) Certainly, with the passage of time, that is more obvious. (And that’s not just PC--Birth of a Nation is [and was] racist, pure and simple.) What’s the difference if Griffith couldn’t see the film as racist, or could, but refused to admit it? How many racist films does one need to make before one is a racist?

(By the way, Intolerance is one of my all time favorite films, and I love Orphans of the Storm, as well as many other Griffith films. Artists, including Griffith, are more then just one work of art. And I adamantly believe that one should separate the “art” from the “artist”, but it’s telling that while Griffith accepted all of the (well-deserved) accolades associated with his film, he dismissed, or ignored, any of the criticism.

drednm

Postby drednm » May 30th, 2008, 2:50 pm

And just because a black person is portrayed "as a savage," that doesn't make it racist, since whatever "type" is portrayed exists somewhere--white, black, or green.

The hubbub about THE BIRTH OF A NATION was, for the most part, started by people who hadn't even seen the film. What does that tell you? Stokes mentions that there were MANY more racially offensive films that came out BEFORE Griffith's film. They came and went without much of a whimper. BOAN was pre-selected because of Dixon's play, "The Clansman," (which itself was rarely protested) and because of Griffith's stature in the film industry. Most of the "furor" was politically motivated by people who hadn't even seen the film.

If people today find this film, or any film, offensive then they needn't watch it. Pretty simple, huh? That a 93-year-old film can still cause such an uproar is patently ridiculous. But then people are still trying to ban the novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird" as well.

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Postby bdp » May 30th, 2008, 4:32 pm

I would say that, not only do people need to see BoaN for themselves, but they also need to know actual Civil War/reconstruction history to see where BoaN is inaccurate or lapses into pure melodrama. I myself don't like the question being phrased as 'was Griffith a racist' since people do change over time, and he may have discarded certain ideas later on; I do judge the film itself by its own content and I do see racist ideas there, without question.

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Postby myrnaloyisdope » May 30th, 2008, 4:42 pm

I agree with you bdp.

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Postby Mr. Arkadin » May 30th, 2008, 5:11 pm

Synnove wrote:The Birth of a Nation wasn't just one of Griffith's films, it was his first great masterpiece, and he invested a great deal in making it, without having any idea if it would be a success. The story was obviously of importance to him, because of his own background. Like MichiganJ said, he never saw fit to edit out any of the extreme racism in the film later - either because he thought it would be hypocritical, or because he still held the same views.


Actually he did make a revised cut of the film, but as Roger Ebert said: "that is not the answer. "If we are to see this film we must see it all and deal with it all."

There is a difference between purposeful, deliberate individual racism, and growing up in a racist society. I certainly believe BOAN has some horrific racist scenes within the film and there are some half truths and other things that Griffith used to build up the story (such as the black congressmen with their shoes off), but it's hard to say whether he did that with deliberate racial intent, or just believed what was depicted in so many southern tales. There were indeed black congressmen. In fact, the whole of South Carolina's post was replaced by blacks, mostly uneducated men, deliberately done to shame SC for starting the war.

The fact is unless you were an abolitionist in those days, you participated in a racist society whether you knew it or not. Griffith makes an easy scapegoat, but the fault lies not only with Griffith, but our nation, that people overlooked the dehumanizing aspects and sat in enjoyment for three hours. Unfortunately, thoughts toward African Americans were not what they are today. For many white people it was a big step not to see them as slaves. To see them as equals who could hold similar jobs, go to the same schools, or intermarry with whites was unthinkable to most white people of that time. You have to realize that America had slavery for years, and a way of living and thinking had been established which we are still trying to erase in modern society.

I don’t know if you've ever seen Stars in My Crown or not, but I find Tourneur’s film is very much in line with American ideals of the 1950's and before, when we see Uncle Famous excluded from the church and headed for the fishing hole.

With this one shot, Tourneur reminds us that we still have a long way to go in acceptance of each other. Value of another's life is only a easy first step. Living together in harmony is true Christianity--something we are still struggling with many years later.

There are many other films in the 30's and 40's with deplorable racist scenes. How about The Bank Dick (1940) where W.C. Fields is startled by a black man who then does some deplorable "shucking and jiving". Or Fields's favorite bar The Black Pussy Cafe? There's also the character of Algernon in High Sierra (1941) and tons of others. Are we to consider all these people racist Klan members?

The fact remains that America as a whole did not get serious about racial issues until after WWII when many blacks and whites had served together and the realization of what the Nazis did to the Jewish people had parallels (in logic) to what was happening in our own backyard at home. Howard Griffin noted as such in his book, Black Like Me where journeying as a black man, he noted the respect returning white soldiers showed towards blacks. How could we claim to fight for freedom and liberty when we questioned African Americans humanity and they had no say in our government?

As for Griffith, I believe his later work sought to undo what BOAN achieved (namely the reemergence of the KKK who had their highest number of followers in 1925). I personally think his thoughts about race and society began to shift at that point. Broken Blossoms (1918-19) is a daring interracial love story between a white woman and a Chinese man. My favorite, Way Down East (1920), is an interesting look on societies judgment of others and how it can ruin lives. Griffith's love letter to humanity, Intolerance (1916), was an apology of sorts and a colossal failure (people would have rather seen the Klan I guess) which bankrupted him (seeing the sets and expense it's easy to see why). He never recovered financially from that point on, but his films just got better and better. If Griffith were an intentional racist, his films would not have changed as such. He would have continued down the same path as BOAN.

P.S. Personally, I take anything Ken Burns says with a grain of salt. The man admitted he had never even heard of Jack Johnson six months prior to making his film. This is especially humorous as he had just previously made Jazz (full of errors like most of his films) and allowed Wynton Marsalis who had an axe to grind to unfairly criticize Miles Davis who released a groundbreaking album in 1970 called--you guessed it--Jack Johnson.
Last edited by Mr. Arkadin on June 3rd, 2008, 6:57 am, edited 3 times in total.

drednm

Postby drednm » May 30th, 2008, 10:27 pm

Actually INTOLERANCE started out well in big cities across the country but couldn't sustain the public's interest the way THE BIRTH OF A NATION DID. INTOLERANCE also did not draw well in rural areas and so eventually lost money. After several re-issues and carving out the Babylonian arc as a separate feature and released as THE FALL OF BABYLON and also the modern story as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW, both in 1919, Griffith may have eventually recouped his production costs.

INTOLERANCE remains my all-time favorite silent film and although I rank many Griffith film's among my favorites, this one had (and still has) an amazing blending of story, actors, scope, technical wizardry, incredible sets, and heart. A stunning achievement.

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Postby Mr. Arkadin » May 30th, 2008, 10:38 pm

Intolerance is indeed an incredible film. Thanks for the additional info. 8)

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Postby Synnove » May 31st, 2008, 6:44 am

It's one of my favourites, along with Broken Blossoms and Way Down East.

Mr. Arkadin, you make great points. I just want to say, that I understand that Griffith's views were affected by where he came from and the kind of views his society had about race. Like I've said in earlier posts, there wasn't the same awareness then as there is now, by our standards very many people were racist, and I don't want to use only Griffith as a scapegoat for that. I don't believe he was a racist propagandist like Thomas Dixon was. For all I know, he might have told history as he understood it. But the film on its own is racist and had a harmful impact, no matter what Griffith himself intended with it. The reason why it's a valuable social document now is because it exposes, in the extremest form, the views of a whole society, not just the views of one man.

drednm

Postby drednm » May 31st, 2008, 10:53 am

The film on it's own is NOT racist.... "racism" is in the eye of the beholder because Griffith did NOT purposely make BOAN as a racist film. The identification of a film or book as being RACIST is a label used by the reader or viewer unless RACISM was the intent of the author. Griffith would have had NO REASON to make a RACIST film. The racial insensitivities in the film were a product of the time and extremely common in films and books and on stage. You cannot put today's labels on something created 100 years ago; it makes no sense and serves no purpose.


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