16 March 2011

Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith

How do you feel watching the Ku Klux Klan?
Now, how do feel about cheering on the KKK as they rescue innocent whites from the depredations of rioting blacks?
You'd mostly feel the same way as before. But, in the context of Birth of a Nation, at the end of a series of humiliations and outrages committed upon the protagonists, when the Klan becomes the last hope. . . for a second, for maybe less than a second, you want to cheer them on. As that appalling revelation sinks in, you realize that bringing you to that emotion is the the achievement and the horror of Birth of a Nation.
It is a sprawling epic, covering the Civil War and the Reconstruction over 180 minutes. And those minutes fly by, filled as they are with events, passion, tragedy, and melodrama best sense. Lillian Gish, the star, is graceful as a Javanese dancer, winsome; early a hundred years later she's the incarnation of everything a movie star represents. Many of the sequences are still viscerally exciting. Other parts of the film are beautiful, both on their own terms and now, as an artifact of a style of filmmaking and a time that’s long gone. The lovers strolling in the cotton field. The way the light, from high and behind the actors, gives them silver nitrate halos.

The formal innovations are substantial. It's hard to imagine, for instance, the ingenuity involved in inventing parallel editing. It's such a basic part of film grammar now that creating it seems almost like inventing the paragraph.
Yet, Birth of a Nation is the most breathtakingly racist movie I’ve ever seen. Although it’s billed as a Civil War epic, that part of the movie only sets up the reason for the creation of the Klan and its ultimate triumph over the carpetbaggers and power-grabbing Negroes who defile the South during Reconstruction.
This is a film whose content completely overwhelms its formal qualities. You can't discuss the grand scale, the editing techniques, the genius level innovations of  D.W. Griffith without dealing with racism, which is at the core of the movie.

It's also very much a movie about social class. It often feels as if the aristocracy of the South is the thin, blue-blooded line between savagery and civilization. Lowly proles get the same treatment as the uppity negroes. And often, a sexual hysteria lurks under the surface when it's not in full lurid display. Really, all the blacks and the poorer whites seem to want to do is violate the flower of the well bred womenfolk.
These narratives still play out. They must be deeply embedded in our national psyche. For example, there's a series of scenes where the negroes have taken over the state legislature during Reconstruction. Griffith treats us to the site of uncouth blacks picking their toes -- on the very floor of the capitol! Yet, this sense of violation, of propriety savaged, must be what the tea party whack jobs must feel with Obama in the White House.
The racism, being overt, also offers a map to itself. Being expressed so freely, we can see that the main cause is fear and disgust. Fear that the whites will be robbed of their rightful place and property. And fear that the blacks will rape our women.

It was also strange to watch a movie where whiteness is presented as the embodiment of virtue. I don't want to get into whiteness in American culture, the whole Moby Dick, Gordon Pym, Invisible Man theme that's vast and deep. But more this: that "white people" is really now a set up for punch lines -- white has become to mean merely pale, uninteresting. While in the Birth of Nation, being white means owning chivalry, discipline, and grace. It's the same racist coin, but flipped.

I saw this commercial not long after viewing Birth of Nation. It represents progress, on one level. the punchline, or climax, depends on a black guy ogling a slim blonde with impunity and after a friendly smile. It's played for laughs, rather than outrage. But. If I'm honest, I can feel the slightest, merest flicker of the motivating forces of Griffiths' movie as I watch the ad. Or, check out the angry white guy video -- the one where an old guy smacks down a black dude on the bus. If you see it, and read the comments, you realize that the racial fear is still there, but now it's laced with fear of being robbed, killed or raped by a black guy. That clip would not have the same juice if it was a white kid getting straightened out.

So perhaps the movie is not as much a relic of the past as I'd like it to be for me.. And the unending racially based scorn of Obama signals that Birth of a Nation is not so far removed for the country, either.

Cinema knows no ideology. We love to see a cavalry charging to the rescue, whether in Union blue or Klan white. Depending on the point of view, we stand with Custer or attack with Sitting Bull, equally. We’re shoulder to shoulder with the sailors of the Potemkin or the brown shirts in Nuremberg. Our brain may protest, but our eyes and our gut have already run ahead of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment