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.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

National Archives

Holocaust Remembrance DayInternational Holocaust Remembrance Day is a memorial day designated by the United Nations to mark the anniversary of the January 27, 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp.

“The National Archives is the international epicenter of Holocaust-related research. NARA holds millions of records created or received by the U.S. Government during and after World War II that document Nazi war crimes, wartime refugee issues, and activities and investigations of U.S. Government agencies involved in the identification and recovery of looted assets (including gold, art, and cultural property)—as well as captured German records used as evidence at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunals.”

So I was… appalled is far too weak a word… when I saw one of the January 6 insurrectionists. He was wearing a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt. Did he not know the awful history of the place? Or did he approve of it?

“By the end of World War II, the Holocaust had claimed the lives of over 6 million Jewish people—nearly two out of every three in Europe.” Was he a Holocaust denier? If he believed the Big Lie about the “stolen election,” maybe he had drunk that Lool-Aid too.

Nuremberg

I no longer remember the first time I watched a film of emaciated people walking out of the camps. It was at least half a lifetime ago. The survivors reminded me of sentient skeletons. Seeing them on film was far more awful than looking at still photos.

With the clear growth of a white supremacist movement in the United States and elsewhere, perhaps you should view Investigating the Holocaust. It is a series of short videos that “trace the history of the Nazi Party from its inception through World War II… The videos feature original film footage used as evidence by the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany — the most famous courtroom drama in modern times, and the first to make extensive use of film as evidence.

“The FDR Presidential Library and Museum has also produced an accompanying Curriculum Guide to introduce students to the Holocaust through historical materials drawn from the FDR Library’s archives and the recently remastered documentary, ‘ Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.'”

Also, check out the ADL website.