The late Roger Ebert did a series of reviews on the ‘Great Movies” which are still online, one of the finest reviews he wrote was about the 1915 Movie: Birth of a Nation.
“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.
On a Technical level nobody disputes that this early film epic was a masterpiece, it was not only for a long time considered the greatest american movie but also introduced to the fledgling movie industry that made movies what they are.
audiences in 1915 were witnessing the invention of intercutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds.
Today, what they saw for the first time, we cannot see at all. Griffith assembled and perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques that have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them.
On the other hand for all it’s technical and cinematic accomplishments of the film those images had horrible consequences:
“The Birth of a Nation” is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America…. It is based on Thomas Dixon’s racist play, The Clansman, and the fact that Griffith wanted to adapt it reveals his own prejudices.
And it didn’t just encourage racist attitudes it struck a match that burned for decades
Some of the film’s most objectionable scenes show the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of a white family trapped in a cabin by sexually predatory blacks and their white manipulators. These scenes are credited with the revival of the popularity of the Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared.
DW Griffith was out to make a movie, he wasn’t out to bring back the Klan, encourage violence against the black community nor to cause the death of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney nearly 50 years later but just as the slaveholding generation was finally dying out this movie fantasy allowed the revival of prejudices and actions that took decades & blood to bring under control.
Given that the movie industry was in its infancy one might attempt to excuse Griffith’s ignorance as to the consequences of these movie images in 1915.
100 years later in Ferguson MO, that same excuse doesn’t wash.
Stacy McCain not withstanding what’s happening in Ferguson Mo is national news, not because Brown’s shooting is national news, but because of the rioting that has been going on for days now.
The still images and the video images and live feed of this rioting has been covered by media all over the county and the world. It has been seen on TV’s on iPhones, on TV and laptops.
It has been the subject of Newspapers, facebook posts, tweets and radio. Even people who pay little attention to news have could not miss the dissemination of these images.
If the images of DW Griffith’s movie were damaging to the black community because it reinforced by fantasy existing prejudices and revived the Klan the Ferguson riots are exponentially worse for the community and will have a greater effect on the culture’s perception of Blacks in America for generations.
Why? Several reasons:
1. Unlike Birth of a Nation these images are constantly being replayed everywhere, one doesn’t have to proactively seek these images to find the.
2. Unlike Birth of a Nation you have fresh images daily from fresh riots reinforcing what is being seen each day.
3. Those who saw Birth of a nation saw a depiction of events from a half a century ago an era that most of the viewers did not see and was not familiar. The images and events of Ferguson are of contemporary current events, some seen in real time, that the viewers can identify with. Furthermore unlike
4. Furthermore the plantation & battle scene locations might mean little to a moviegoer of 1915. The locals of The business that have been hit and looted in Ferguson include Papa John’s Domino’s Pizza, Walgreens and some corner convenience stores. These types of stores exist in all over America causing individuals to relate to them.
And most important of all while the scenes depicted in the move are either dramatizations of historical events (Civil War Battles, Lincoln assassination) or pure fiction. People seeing the rioting and response are seeing images of true events with the actual people involved in these events.
The Cable networks can write all they want about justice for Michael Brown as opposed to say Shaquise Butler, Basketball hall of famers can be given as many column inches in national magazines as they wish and people can describe what is going on as a “teachable moment” but for generations of people their primary memory of this events of Ferguson Mo will not be if the shooting of Michael Brown was or was not justified by the events. It will be of a mob of black youths looting and burning their own neighborhoods for days leading to the deployment of National Guard troops.
So much for the influence of “black leaders” and the New Black Panthers.
People can pretend otherwise all they want but to a large segment of the American population their perception of every young black man born in the next decade and their children will be defined by a bunch of punk rioters looting their local Domino’s Pizza.
It’s not fair and it was not likely the intent of the people who turned this from a local & state story to a national and international one any more than it was DW Griffith’s intention to revive the KKK in 1915 but their intent not withstanding like the release of Birth of a Nation their actions will have consequences for generations to come, both for the country as a whole and for the black community in particular.
The final Irony is that while Griffith spent a lifetime trying to make up for what he had inadvertently done, those who will rise to prominence or advance their causes thanks to events in Ferguson will likely never even reckon or even perceive its price.
I’d recommend a lot of Rosaries in reparation.
Update: clarified that Brown’s shooting in itself was not national news.
As monthly goals have not been working out let’s bottom line things.
We need a total of $7225 to cover the rest of the expenses for the year.
If you think the coverage and commentary we provide here is worth your support please consider hitting DaTipJar below and help keep the bills paid.
Consider the lineup you get In addition to my own work seven days a week you get John Ruberry (Marathon Pundit) on Sunday Pat Austin (And so it goes in Shreveport) on Monday Tim Imholt on Tuesday, AP Dillon (Lady Liberty1885) Thursdays, Pastor George Kelly Fridays, Steve Eggleston on Saturdays with Baldilocks (Tue & Sat) and Fausta (Wed & Fri) of (Fausta Blog) twice a week.
If that’s not worth $20 a month I’d like to know what is?