Lingering violence of ‘Birth of a Nation’

“one of the embarrassments of film scholarship”

Birth of a NationIn the CHRISTMAS EVE 2020 edition of the Boston Globe, there was a stunning bit from an article. Social Studies: “The lingering violence of ‘Birth of a Nation’” excerpted five articles from university-based publications.

The one I want to point out here is “The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate,” Harvard University (November 2020). The author is listed as D. Ang. I assume it is Desmond Ang, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The quotes

The 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation” is infamous for its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, but what many people may not appreciate today is just how influential it was — and still is. Little surprise when the source material was the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. “Romance,” indeed.

Here are a couple of more recent contrasting opinions. James Agee: “To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” That man, of course, was D.W. Griffith.

Andrew Sarris: “Classic or not, ‘Birth of a Nation’ has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored…and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.”

As the Harvard professor notes, “an estimated 10 million Americans — roughly one-fifth of the adult white population — turned out to see the movie in its first two years,” and “newspaper reports from the period estimated that nearly 50 percent of adults in Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans saw the film.”

The movie was screened via traveling roadshow rather than simultaneous nationwide release, and the professor finds that lynchings and race riots increased fivefold within a month of the movie’s arrival in a county. Also, counties that screened the film were much more likely to have a Klan chapter in 1930 — a correlation that persists into the 21st century, with more white supremacist groups and hate crimes in those counties than in counties that didn’t screen the movie.

The Binghamton Press

There were over 150 references to the movie in my hometown papers. It was first shown in the area the week of January 10, 1916, and played again in 1917. The Klan was quite visible in Binghamton, NY in the mid-1920s, as pictured here.

But I’m curious about how narrow those early showings were. It played for three days at the Stone Theater in early September of 1921. The anonymous movie compiler wrote, “It will be presented upon the same elaborate scale which has marked its recent presentations” in New York City and other large markets.

The film returned with a soundtrack recorded in 1930 but wasn’t shown until 1949. The Roberson Theatre showed it in 1979, but I see that one as a totally different experience. Robeson was an educational center where I saw movies by Fellini, Bergman, and Hitchcock, so I imagine there was some contextualization taking place.

The more recent references included a writer finding the placement of the film on the AFI’s best to be abhorrent. I suppose one could make the case that it was very good at being terrible.

Should I see this?

I’ll admit I’ve never seen the movie in its entirety. I’ve watched clips, of course. There were several bits of it in the 2018 film BlacKkKlansman

As it turns out, one can find copies of the film, which runs for 195 minutes at the National Archives site. Next time I want to get ticked off, and have three hours on my hands, I guess I’ll check it out.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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