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The Worth Of 'A Nation'

D.w. Griffith's Epic Has Seared Emotions For Almost 90 Years. A Pioneering Work Of Filmmaking? A Shameful Racist Diatribe? In Many Ways, It Has Relevance For 2004.

September 19, 2004|Greg Braxton

On Aug. 9, a rare public showing of D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation," was abruptly canceled. The owner of the Silent Movie Theatre had received threats of arson and worse in anonymous phone messages, and activists and community groups, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, had called for protests.

Two weeks later, in an attempt to comprehend the continuing controversy surrounding the film, the Los Angeles Times held a screening and subsequent round-table discussion. Invited to participate were film scholar and historian David Shepard, who helped produce the film's release on DVD and had been scheduled to introduce the screening at the Silent Movie Theatre; community activist and KPFK-FM radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who held a news conference outside the theater that night; UCLA history professor Ellen Dubois; and Aaron McGruder, creator of the acerbic comic strip "The Boondocks" and coauthor with filmmaker Reginald Hudlin of a graphic novel titled, coincidentally, "Birth of a Nation." Times staff writer Greg Braxton moderated.

The screening of Shepard's own print of the film, with live accompaniment by musician Rick Friend, lasted more than three hours. It was uncomfortable, and not only because of the hard Times auditorium chairs. Among the images in the film:

A scene set in the black-majority South Carolina House of Representatives of 1871, in which barefooted legislators swig from pint bottles and eat fried chicken.

A young white woman leaping from a cliff to her death rather than be touched by a black soldier who has pursued her.

An extended close-up of "America's Sweetheart" Lillian Gish bound and gagged, a threatening black fist near her face.

Hooded Ku Klux Klan members riding to the rescue of a white family and, in another scene, with guns drawn, preventing black voters from going to the polls.

And yet the filmmaking craft is undeniable. There are moments of great emotional tenderness as well as masterfully choreographed battle scenes and thrilling action editing.

The discussion that followed was heated. Accusations of disrespect and long-windedness flew across the table. Two participants threatened to leave. There were tangential skirmishes on issues from media ownership to the presidential campaign to ignorant audiences. But ultimately, there was agreement -- that 90 years later, "The Birth of a Nation" still has the power to stun, and that the legacy of slavery in this country has yet to be resolved.

An abridged transcript:

Can you briefly sum up your assessment, your personal assessment of the value of this film?

Shepard: I think the film is a pioneering work historically. I think the film sums up the level of motion picture art as of 1915. I think the film is a political film, which makes a statement that people listened to, probably for the first time in the history of motion pictures. There it is in three sentences.

Earl, you say you've seen this film several times.

Hutchinson: Probably one of the best assessments I ever heard, someone said to me one time about "Birth of a Nation," and this is a film historian/filmmaker, "Why in God's name did one of the great cinematic gems, in terms of innovative techniques, in terms of editing, in terms of influence, from an artistic standpoint" -- we'll get to the political in a minute -- "why did it have to be, also, one of the most racist films, if not the most racist film, ever made?"

If this had been a third-rate film, a 10th-rate film, a lousy film, we wouldn't be sitting here now talking about it. It would have long since been buried, it would have long since been forgotten. But because it did break such new ground, and because it had such an overwhelming impact politically, in terms of the racial mores of the time, that just drove it. As a matter of fact, I would even take it a step further. Probably the two greatest films in American cinematic history are also two of the most racist, racially stereotypical and loaded films. "Birth of a Nation" obviously is one. The other one, "Gone With the Wind." Basically, where you see the Southern view of America, the Southern view of race, the Southern view of the Civil War.

I think the other thing that gives ["The Birth of a Nation"] a lot of power and resonance is the stereotypes that are propagated. We see some of those same stereotypes that are still having a life of their own, 90 years later. African Americans are portrayed as clowns and buffoons -- we still see a lot of that today in certain areas of art and certainly we see that in some sitcoms and movies. The criminality -- we see that. The dysfunctionality -- we see that. The ignorance -- we see that. The sexual degeneracy of African Americans. Those things are very aptly depicted by Griffith, and guess what? They still have a life of their own today.

Ellen, have you ever seen this film before?

Dubois: No.

So what was your reaction?

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