Saturday, 6 March 2021

Birth Pains: Revisiting D.W. Griffith's Racist Epic

I'm currently reading Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson’s brilliant and comprehensively detailed book 900 page chronicle of the American Civil War, and the occasion gave me opportunity to revisit Griffith’s Birth of a Nation last night, courtesy of the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Birth of a Nation perhaps 3 or 4 times in the 20-odd years since my first discovery of the film in 1994, when Empire magazine ran a story about the BBFC's awarding of a 15 certificate for the film's VHS release on the BFI's Connoisseur label, an unprecedented age restriction for a Silent film. I remember too catching portions of the film in the latter half of the 90's when it was routinely screened here on one of Ireland's TV channels as part of a Sunday morning Silent slot. The film finally entered the Collection in the early 2000’s with Kino’s Griffith Masterworks DVD edition, followed by the MOC BR 2013 or thereabout. Screenings of Birth of a Nation have always been something of a dry academic exercise, and yet, I’ve always appreciated Griffith’s film as a landmark moment in the evolution of narrative cinema, and admittedly, it was convenient to put the problematic question of the film’s racial politics at arm’s length. In the 10 years or so since I last saw the film much of this distasteful content had faded from memory. But with the film fresh in my mind, I must now confront how absolutely despicable the film is in its treatment - on both sides of the camera, of African Americans. 

NAACP members picketing outside the Republic Theatre in New York, 1947

The worst excesses of the film’s racist cant are found in the second half of the film, set during the Reconstruction era, but throughout the film, African Americans are portrayed in the most dishonest and reprehensible manner, depicted as childish and subservient, drunken, wild and lascivious; with the history of the era warped to suit the themes of Griffith’s deceitful film. It says a lot about Woodrow Wilson’s own views on race, when he famously pronounced that the film was “… like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true" - an astonishing remark from a sitting American president. In the accompanying MoC booklet, Griffith is quoted quite unashamedly as saying he didn’t want to use African American actors among the principle players, and interestingly, there are plenty of African Americans among the wider cast. As per the legend, Griffith made the film without a written scenario so one wonders what exactly Griffith was barking at the African American cast members during the scenes he directed them in. Watching the film again, I had that unpleasant sensation of being complicit in the film’s vitriol and this screening may well be my very last. When Spike Lee included a scene in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, where some white supremacists giggle at a screening of Griffith's film, I think Lee was suggesting that Birth of a Nation as it stands today is a film best enjoyed by idiots. And he may be right.

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