Since I moved to Brooklyn, I finally have a mailbox big enough to hold a DVD, so I am discovering the joys of Netflicks. I rent movies I’ve never seen or have only seen part of, or cable series I’m seen some or none of (“Deadwood” and “Rescue Me,” in particular). This week I saw “The Birth of a Nation.” I’d seen parts of it in a PBS documentary, and I’d certainly read about D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh.
My friend Cheryl Davis recently had a production of her play “By Oscar Micheaux” produced by the Milk Can Theatre Company. Micheaux was a contemporary of Griffith’s, and also a film director (he made what were then called “race” movies). Throughout the play, Micheaux invokes Griffith as the exemplar of what is wrong with Hollywood and its treatment of black characters. His first full-length feature, “The Homesteader,” was made in response to Griffith’s depiction of Black Americans. Micheaux also wound up working with a young Robert Earl Jones towards the end of his life, which I find fascinating. Would James Earl Jones ever have gone into acting at all if his father hadn’t?
“Birth of a Nation” was made in 1915, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War. (The link above gives a lot of information about the film and a plot summary.) It was the most popular silent film ever made; then-President Woodrow Wilson (who, don’t forget, was a Southerner himself) described it as “History written with lightning.” It was based on two novels of the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., who adapted them into a play (“The Clansman”) that ran on Broadway at the Liberty Theatre (approximately where the AMC is now, on the 200 block of 42nd Street) in 1906. Civil War plays were very popular- the great actor William Gillette’s most famous vehicle was “Sherlock Holmes,” but a close second was his “Secret Service,” about a Union spy. Griffith was originally an actor and performed in several plays about the Civil War. He was a native of Kentucky, and his father was a decorated Confederate Army colonel.
All of that said, “Birth of a Nation” is deeply shocking. When it opened , there were protests in the Northeast, and by the NAACP. The State of Ohio tried to ban it from being shown at all. If you could, even for a moment (and I don’t think it’s possible, actually), try to detach the rampant racism from it, which is in every frame where there are any Black characters, there is certainly more stuff going on besides. It is anti-Northern in a hundred subtle ways. If I’d been a Union Army veteran watching it, I’d have been absolutely incensed. This pricked my conscience on and off while I was watching it, until the final scene. That scene is the two honeymooning couples, by the sea, dreaming of the New Jerusalem, a city of brotherly love and the image of Jesus. These words and images, particularly after what has come before (it’s long- about two and a half hours), are incredibly jarring. This is how the Ku Klux Klan imagines heaven? I could only take cold comfort in the fact that no one could ever make a movie like “Birth of a Nation” today.