Birth of a Nation' -- 100 years on, debate on film endures

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Posted: Feb 12, 2015 12:23 PM
Birth of a Nation' -- 100 years on, debate on film endures

NEW YORK (AP) — One hundred years ago this spring, Hollywood came of age in a blaze of wonder and fury.

D.W. Griffith's three-hour Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation," was released in April 1915 after a special showing in March at President Woodrow Wilson's White House. It is widely recognized as a blueprint for the feature-length movie and as a showcase for Griffith's Tolstoyan command of historical narrative, from the battlefield to the front porch.

But one of the greatest glories in movie history is also one of its lasting shames. Within Griffith's lovingly assembled images is a story that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, demonized blacks and sealed the misconception that the Reconstruction era in the South was a disastrous experiment in racial equality.

So now, at the film's centennial, an industry that loves and thrives on honoring its past may allow one of its defining moments to go largely unobserved.

Turner Classic Movies, one of the prime outlets for silent cinema, is uncertain how or whether to mark the anniversary, said Charles Tabesh, senior vice president.

"It's not just something you can put in the schedule," he said. TCM has occasionally aired the film, which is in the public domain, but he explained, "We've provided an introduction and explained why it's on, but even with that, we've gotten responses ranging from minor complaints to a lot of people who were really upset about it. It's difficult because for a channel like Turner Classic Movies you can't just avoid it. It wouldn't be appropriate to pretend it was never made."

Over the past quarter century, "Birth of a Nation" has been enshrined and entombed.

In 1992, to much criticism, the Library of Congress added Griffith's work to the National Film Registry, calling it a "controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece." For decades, the Directors Guild of America awarded a D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement, but dropped the prize in 1999 to "create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history."

In 1998, the American Film Institute listed "Birth of a Nation" at No. 44 on a list of the best 100 American movies. The film does not appear on a 2007 AFI "Best 100" list, which instead features "Intolerance," Griffith's atonement for "Birth." A planned screening in 2004 at a Los Angeles theater was canceled because of protests.

"The Birth of a Nation" is historical drama, but for the director it was something close to emotional autobiography. David Wark Griffith was born in Kentucky in 1875, just a decade after the Civil War ended. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, and Griffith grew up in the early Jim Crow era. Although Kentucky was a border state that did not secede and was relatively unaffected by Reconstruction, Griffith related to the source material for "Birth of a Nation," Thomas Dixon's novel and play "The Clansman."

"Griffith did not question the core assumption of Dixon's story: that blacks, once the supposedly benevolent bonds of slavery had been overthrown, became violent and threatening to whites, especially women," says Melvyn Stokes, author of "D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation."

He was a man of the late 19th century mastering the tools of a revolutionary medium of the 20th century — moving images. After several years of acting and script writing, he directed his first movie, in 1908. By 1914, Griffith was among the country's top directors.

"As he refined and developed his filmmaking art, he became ambitious to do longer, more 'epic' films," Stokes said, noting that Griffith had studied the Italian production "Quo Vadis" and a French production, "Queen Elizabeth."

"He was also keen to produce works like these based on history, since historical subjects were seen as a means of making motion pictures 'respectable' and appealing to the more lucrative, middle-class audience."

Virtually everything about "Birth of a Nation" was outsized and new. Moviegoers were charged $2 a ticket (around $46 in 2015) at a time when you could see an afternoon of comedy shorts for pennies. The film helped mark the transition from nickelodeons to gilded movie "palaces." The cast included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman).

In theaters, whites reveled and rampaged. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teen after seeing the movie. The Ku Klux Klan used the film for decades to recruit members.

Black filmmakers responded forcefully to "Birth of a Nation," and across generations. In 1919, Oscar Micheaux made "Within Our Gates," a blunt portrait of white violence and among the earliest surviving movies by a black director. In 1980, Spike Lee was a film major at New York University when he completed the 20-minute "The Answer," in which a young black screenwriter is asked by a Hollywood studio to turn out a script for a remake of "Birth of a Nation."

Paul D. Miller, aka the hip-hop and performance artist DJ Spooky, saw "Birth of a Nation" while attending Bowdoin College and recalled how it echoed in his mind "because of so many of the issues that keep resurfacing in American culture." In 2004, DJ Spooky premiered "Rebirth of a Nation," a multimedia stage event and later a film that remixed excerpts from Griffith's movie with contemporary images, music and commentary.

Miller finds "Birth of a Nation" so influential, technically and aesthetically, he even thought about it while designing his iPad app.

"As much as possible I want to think about mobile media as the inheritors of the cinematic imaginary," he wrote in an email. "Cell phones, tablets, and other portable media have set the stage for a new kind of multimedia experience. 'Birth of a Nation' set the tone for that as well."