Battle of Ideas 2015
The Birth of a Nation: more than racism on film?
After Ferguson: policing and race in America
Artistic expression: where should we draw the line?
“Why censor the motion picture — the labouring man’s university? Fortunes are spent every year in our country teaching the truths of history, that we may learn from the mistakes of the past a better way for the present and future. The truths of history today are restricted to the limited few attending our colleges and universities; the motion picture can carry these truths to the entire world, without cost, while at the same time bringing diversion to the masses. As tolerance would then be compelled to give way before knowledge and the deadly monotomy of the cheerless existence of millions would be brightened by this new art, two of the chief causes making war possible would be removed.”
So wrote DW Griffiths in 1916 in the aftermath of his epic film Birth of a Nation. Fine words, loaded with twisted assumptions that rankle, irritate and anger anti-racists even a century on.
Birth of a Nation is no ordinary film. Inspired by Reverend Thomas Dixon’s novel and play The Clansman, it was engulfed in controversy: its central theme championed the post-civil war reformation of the Klu Klux Klan and blatantly suggested that American society only functioned effectively through the subjection of its black population. Worse still, its depiction of the defeated white slave-owning class as honourable victims of corrupt northern unionists and ‘carpet baggers’ contrasted against newly-liberated former slaves as feral, lustful, illiterates drunk with power and indulging in legally-sanctioned excess and wanton violence mainly to force white women into sexual relations.
Not surprisingly, on its release it was attacked by black journalists, political campaigners, trade unions, local government and filmmakers. The then newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lead a national campaign against it. In total, the film was banned in five states and 19 cities. Even as late as 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York refused to screen it.
Protests and audience reaction to the film, for and against, led to violent and, in some cases, fatal clashes. This continued right up to the 1950s when rumours of a talking re-make of the film swept Hollywood, reactivating the muted echo of labour union protests from earlier years.
In the 1980s, film historian Donald Bogle put forward the theses that film effectively shaped the images of black characters in Hollywood by consolidating five stereotypes: the Uncle Tom, the Comical Coon, the Tragic Mulatto, the Sexless Mammy and the over-sexed and violent Big Buck. These are ideas that would later be taken up by Robert Townsend in his comedic Hollywood Shuffle and more recently in Spike Lee’s polemic Bamboozled.
Nevertheless, Birth of a Nation was both a commercial and artistic success. Superbly directed by Griffiths, it altered the entire course of filmmaking, utilising innovative filming techniques such as close-ups, track shots and cross-cutting action sequences. The film initially made the relatively huge sum of $100,000 and earned over $18 million by 1931. It was only superseded by Gone With the Wind, another slavery epic that took its cue directly from Griffiths’ work. By the time of World War II, it had been seen by over 200 million people worldwide.
But that still doesn’t fully explain why the scope of Griffith’s work continues to trouble critics, filmmakers and fans alike. One of the best responses to this dilemma came from Richard Brody when he wrote in the New Yorker that, “the movie’s fabricated events shouldn’t lead any viewer to deny the historical facts of slavery and Reconstruction. But they also shouldn’t lead to a denial of the peculiar, disturbingly exalted beauty of Birth of a Nation, even in its depiction of immoral actions and its realisation of blatant propaganda.”
But the denial he seeks to avoid has already happened. The fact that the 100th anniversary of the film this year has been so studiously avoided by Hollywood and the Golden Globes Awards speaks volumes of its enduring power to shock, and the discomfort of both the film world and America more generally with confronting its troubled past when it comes to race and prejudice.
Attempting to understand and explore the social context in which racist ideas come from appears — in the 21st century — to have become a more difficult and exceptional task. Sadly, it seems that many would prefer airbrushing them away: deciding it’s better that people, in particular black people and those white masses ‘susceptible’ to racist ideas, avoid being exposed to the uncomfortable realities of the past.
However, we also have the examples of unheralded but important black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux who didn’t back off from these challenges, but set about confronting the issues that agitated black and white audiences by telling alternative stories. In 1920, he created and produced Within Our Gates, a direct rebuttal to Griffiths’ propaganda. Micheaux’s emergence represents the first radical black voice in American film.
Kunle Olulode is director of Voice4Change England and film historian. He is speaking on Birth Of A Nation: more than racism on film? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican on 17 October. Index on Censorship’s director Jodie Ginsberg is also speaking on a session entitled Artistic expression: where should we draw the line?. Index are media partners of the festival.