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Renegade Negroes, and Others

Pictured above is a piece of concept art — undated and apparently unused — that’s currently on display in a must-see exhibit, “The Birth of Promotion: Inventing Film Publicity in the Silent-Film Era,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. My guess is that it’s from the 1930 reissue of “The Birth of a Nation,” and was meant to capitalize on the success of Griffith’s first talkie, the immensely successful “Abraham Lincoln” with Walter Huston.

Kino International’s superb new Blu-ray release of “BoaN” includes the spoken introductions — staged as an after-dinner between Griffith and his Lincoln, Walter Huston, in a soundstage drawing-room — in which Griffith again protests that he means no ill toward any particular ethnic group, but is simply reproducing the history of Reconstruction with no less an authority than Woodrow Wilson to back him up.

Griffith, of course, was no simple racist — he was a very complicated racist, full of contradictions (the romanticized portrait of Indian life in his early westerns) and even some hints of compassion (the rediscovered “Middle Passage” prologue from “Abraham Lincoln” is among the most harrowing depictions of the slave trade in American film). “Birth of a Nation” continues to astound and confound with its juxtaposition of the most delicate sentiment (the Little Colonel’s homecoming) and the most brutal insensitivity (the Ku Klux Klan depicted as the Jedi Knights of 1915). Whatever it is, it’s a work that demands to be seen and discussed — you can’t understand the movies, or America, without it. Here’s my review of the Kino disc in the New York Times.

49 comments to Renegade Negroes, and Others

  • Robert Regan

    Yes, Dave, it is indeed disturbing for a contemporary American to find himself “rooting” for the Klan. Thus, knowing the power of film and, sometimes, the power of Griffith, many young people seem to choose to completely avoid The Birth of a Nation. It appears to be easier for modern American audiences to accept a film in which the “good guys” are such recent “enemies” as Germans and Japanese than the Ku Klux Klan.

  • Alex Hicks

    Perhaps the Griffith of BoaN and ABRAHAM LINCOLN would have been a MORE complicated racist than he actually was if he had stood up for slavery after its affirmation had been abandoned by the ideologues of the Jim Crow South. Criticizing it while affirming the myth of the Black Rapists as a threat to Southern society (cf. Gunning,”Rape, and Lynching,” Oxford University Press, 1996) and affirming the KKK as its anti-Reconstruction champions was conventional Southern wisdom — and part of a “wisdom” with national sympathizers– during the era of BoaN’s making and first vogue.

    The venerable Lincoln who intones ““With malice toward none; with charity for all” late in Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN is one Griffith has mouthing an element of the Jim Crow South’s post-War attempt to recruit the dead Lincoln against Reconstruction, and for its Clan adversaries and for the later Jim Crow order.

  • For those with the new Blu-Ray of “Birth of a Nation,” I wrote a short essay on the new musical score. Unfortunately, I finished it too late to be included in the DVD set, but I’ve posted it at our web site.

  • Thanks, Rodney. I was remiss in not mentioning the contribution of yourself and the other members of the invaluable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra to this excellent disc. I wish the Weinsteins had used you instead of that needle-drop score on “The Artist,” with its outrageously extended appropriation of Bernard Herrmann’s “Love Theme” from “Vertigo” for the big emotional finale.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘It appears to be easier for modern American audiences to accept a film in which the “good guys” are such recent “enemies” as Germans and Japanese than the Ku Klux Klan.’

    That is good, because German and Japanese people are not fascist today, except for certain group, but Ku Klux Klan is still same racist organization.

  • D. K. Holm

    Do the actual music scores for most or many silent films still exist?

  • Robert Regan

    Good point, Junko. I am old enough to remember the continuing hatred of Japan in this country during the post-war years: people refusing to buy toys labeled “Made in Occupied Japan”, and the occasionally revealed negative attitudes of my father who, as a US Marine serving in the Pacific, had been trained to not feel any brotherly love for the “enemy”.

  • Barry Putterman

    One aspect which hasn’t yet been discussed is Dave’s highlighting of the term “renegade” both in the review and in this week’s topic title. That, of course, was also the term which was often used in westerns to describe the bad guy “off he reservation” Indians, from as far back as Fennimore Cooper, as opposed to the good guy cooperative Indians. Just as we have the loyal servant couple in THE BIRTH OF A NATION who mourn Mae Marsh’s death as deeply as any other member of the family. And then, of course, the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is the model for so many Cavalry rides to the rescue in later films.

    To finish off a point from a few weeks ago, the book I brought back from Baltimore is called “The Otis Ferguson Reader.” Which, presumably is what one becomes after buying it. It is edited by Dorothy Chamberlain and Robert Wilson, and has a foreword by Malcolm Cowley. The subtitle is “The Arts–Lively and Literary, Jazz, Film, Radio, Theater, Life at Sea. Life on the Farm, Life in the City.” The largest sections are those on music and of book reviews. A very small portion is devoted to films since, I expect, there is a separate volume of his film criticism. It was published in 1982 by December Press. I have no idea how available it is today.

  • Steve Elworth

    As I think was mentioned, there was an earlier published volume on Otis Ferguson’s film Criticism. To riff on Barry’s point for a minute, this brings us back to our recent discussion of the slippery nature of the representations of the other. Birth codifies various native tropes of the good and bad other and the last minute rescue that will then move between various others for the next 96 years or so or from Birth to HELP or from Wilson to Obama.

  • D.K. Holm, fortunately many actual silent film scores and music theme libraries exist. D.W. Griffith was famous for his musical orientation. Music was played during the shooting of his films, and Griffith, himself, loved to sing in his barytone. Of THE BIRTH OF THE NATION the comment was that 50% of its impact came from the Joseph Carl Breil score (masterminded by Griffith), from which came also the first film-originated hit record, “The Perfect Song”.

    I first saw THE BIRTH OF A NATION in a silent screening as a student in Finland in the 1970s, and I’m ashamed to admit that I found its racism harmless. Finland is a racially (too) homogeneous country, but black artists were the ones we loved the most. The racism in Griffith’s movie seemed quaint and insignificant, not of this world.

    In 1997 I saw THE BIRTH OF A NATION for the first time with the Joseph Carl Breil score, conducted by John Lanchbery in Pordenone. It was like a thunderbolt. The film grew much bigger, and also to something more vicious. First then I understood how that movie changed the lives of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. First then I realized how dangerous that film still is. Yes, even more dangerous now that there is a rebirth of racism in Europe and even in our whitebread Finland. We love Griffith the fighter against intolerance, but THE BIRTH OF A NATION can now be shown with special apologies and restrictions only.

  • Barry Putterman

    Antti, very interesting. I did not know that about “The Perfect Song.” Possibly not so coincidently, “The Perfect Song” also became the theme music for the phenomenally popular radio show “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which holds a historical place in the establishment of network radio in America that is comparable to THE BIRTH OF A NATION’s in relation to feature length films. And holds a position of controversy regarding its racial content comparable to the Griffith film’s as well.

    Yes, it is hard to work up any indignation about the assumptions of monarchy in classical literature and theater now that that form of government seems to be safely in the past in our part of the world. But racism is quite another matter in our current environment.

  • Junko —

    The Ku Klux Klan of today is actually the third racist orgaization bearing this name. The first largely died out in the mid-1870s, after Reconstruction was dismantled. The second KKK was founded in 1915, largely based on the inspiration provided by BoaN itself. This withered away again by the mid-1940s (when it was formally disbanded). Beginning in the 50s (as the black civil rights movement was beginning), the third KKK started (probably with some carry-over from localized remnants of the 2nd KKK).

  • Robert Garrick

    When William K. Everson showed this film at one of his NYU classes back in 1976 or 1977, I remember him sitting back in the projection booth (in that long thin classroom that Barry and Steve will remember) and gleefully constructing his own musical score, like a club DJ. I don’t remember now if he had tapes or turntables, or both, but I do remember that he was really excited to do it and really into it.

    For the entire running length of the film, he sat back there finding music to match the images.

    What a guy.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘The Ku Klux Klan of today is actually the third racist orgaization bearing this name.’

    Thank you for information Michael. All was racist organization, that is main point.

    There is similar history of fascist/nationalist organization in Japan called Kokuryukai. Original disbanded but copy organization founded in 1960s.

  • I only watched BoaN for the first time a couple of months ago, and what struck me was how explicit it was about the white Southerners being willing to give up “states rights” only in exchange for white Northerners being willing to allow the freed slaves to be disenfranchised of the vote. The threat that black men pose to the sexual purity of white women is the electrifying catalyst to the drama, but the key thing is to deny blacks participation in the political system. I was also struck by how the scheming mulatto is named Lynch, which seemed a weird act of projection, although I’m not sure when exactly the term “lynching” came into use.

  • As for Holm’s question about musical scores, it’s more complicated than you might think. Musical scores were generally left up to the individual theater (much as sets and costumes are left up to the theaters for plays, operas, and ballets), so one has to be specific as to which scores are meant. For some big pictures, the “New York Premiere” score can be found. For others, a cue sheet score (which often is quite different) can also be found. As I mention in my essay, the Los Angeles premiere score of Birth of a Nation was quite different from the Breil New York score (and is apparently lost, although some of its content is known). There were certainly thousands of other scores played in other theaters for films like Birth of a Nation, but most are lost.

    The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra compiles scores from movie theater music libraries, using their techniques, so they are scores that “could have been” heard at the time, but (from a statistical standpoint) probably weren’t. And I (obviously) am not of the opinion that only the J.C. Breil score is effective with this film — there are many, many possible scores. The most useful definition of a “silent film” is “a film for which there is no definitive soundtrack.”

    If you want an idea of what top-notch silent film orchestras sounded like, I recommend watching films made in 1928-1929 that were silent, but had scores recorded at the time. Barrymore’s When a Man Loves is available through the Warner Archive Collection with the excellent original Henry Hadley score, and a shot of the orchestra taking a bow at the end. Then there’s the very exciting upcoming DVD / Blu-Ray of Wings with the New York premiere score by J.S. Zamecnik freshly recorded this year by a Hollywood orchestra. That is going to be a fantastic release.

    As a counter-example, the original score for Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage, in my opinion, is a great example of how to ruin a film with inappropriate music.

  • David Cohen

    Webster’s dates Lynch to the 19th century – apparently there was a Lynch (perpetrator, not victim) for whom this was named.

  • David Cohen

    At Northwestern University in the early 1980s, we showed Birth of a Nation one weeknight early in the quarter, but a group of protesters came and made an enormous commotion before and during the film. One of our members got up and introduced the film with a talk intended to put the film in context but that didn’t quiet things down, nor did having some of the protesters get up and talk. The commotion never died down and some of the folks actually there to see the movie ended up leaving and getting their $2 back from us.

    We showed 100 films per quarter at NU and this was one just of the 100 to us, but they didn’t see it that way.

  • Robert Regan

    David, your story reminds me of a pre-release screening at MOMA of Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin. The packed auditorium was quiet during the film, but the minute the director got up to speak afterwards, a young man in his late teens began to walk towards the stage shouting out, “Do you know, do you know what it’s like to live in the ghetto?” Bahshi’s response was, “Yes!” This demonstration never got out of hand. I later learned that the young protester was Al Sharpton.

    Back to Griffith, I worked for several years with an intelligent, well-educated young man who once told me, “I have never seen a film by D.W. Griffith, and I never will!” Last I heard this young man was teaching history at a private school in Brooklyn. I shudder to think what he’s telling those kids. They are probably eating it up.

  • Alex

    Antti Alanen,

    What makes Griffith lovable as a fighter against intolerance? Is it his opposition in INTOLERANCE against the 16th century slaughter (Catholic, no less) of Huguenots, to hasty State implementation of the death penalty, and to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ –all boldly proclaimed right on the heels of BoaN?

  • Robert Regan

    Speaking of Intolerance’s shortcomings, I find its expanded modern story, The Mother and the Law, a more effective film, more carefully thought out, and much better at showing the remarkable talents of Mare Marsh, Robert Harron, and Miriam Cooper.

  • Barry Putterman

    Of course, THE MOTHER AND THE LAW doesn’t provide much of a showcase for Constance Talmadge.

  • Robert Regan

    Good point, Barry. Talmadge was indeed the high point of The Fall of Babylon.

  • Barry Putterman

    Other things that you get in INTOLERANCE but not THE MOTHER AND THE LAW would include all of that gosh darn intercutting and Eugene Pallette. All in all, lots of bang for your buck here!

    Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what is so unlovable about being opposed to the crucifixtion of Christ, unjust capital punishment and the slaughter of the Huguenots. Not to mention the even larger slaughter in Babylon.

    And, for that matter, I’m also trying to figure out how Robert managed to respond to my post only two minutes after it went up (speaking of intercutting).

  • One of the most powerful KKK-references in American film must be Tourneur’s superb STARS IN MY CROWN – even if it is not stated that it’s the Klan in question, and even if the attack on Uncle Famous is based on greed (land owning) and not racism as such, and the actor of the Famous character is Brazilian (Juano Hernandez).

    But of course it is about racism and Ku Klux Klan. Maybe it wasn’t proper even in the 50s to address the problem straight? Tourneur used black actors already in his early films as did Ulmer, too. The sequence at Uncle Famous’s cabin (!) is wonderful, even if it is a wish fulfilment fantasy: that talking sense to people might bring also them to their senses. Our Aki Kaurismäki resorted to a fairytale, too, when dealing with real problems in LE HAVRE. Perhaps it’s legitimate to do so?

    Ken Russell: I thought also that Crimes of Passion was very interesting, when it opened in Finland in 1985, and now I watched it today “in memory of…”, and it hadn’t lost its qualities as a different kind of a love story, but maybe its theme might be thought as a bit sexist these days. I remember also liking Valentino, perhaps it was because of that Nureyev guy in a rare appearance. Tommy I unfortunately didn’t like at least back then, it was overblown and did not seem to me a “rock film” at all, it was too showy.

  • THE BIRTH OF A NATION (to call it by its correct title) is weighted with the social consequences of its release, namely the revival of the Klan, and the popularization of a particular narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Very likely more people are familiar with Griffith’s version of Reconstruction than they are with W.E.B Dubois’s history (or for that matter Philip Foner’s recent book.) And we Americans still live in the shadow of the Civil War, so it’s not surprising that the movie still inspires controversy, and screenings of it are always a good opportunity for political theater. But now with this Blu Ray release we can watch it in privacy and contemplate its formal accomplishments without disturbance. We have the best of both worlds, public debate and private enjoyment.

  • Alex

    “THE BIRTH OF A NATION … But now with this Blu Ray release we can watch it in privacy and contemplate its formal accomplishments without disturbance. We have the best of both worlds, public debate and private enjoyment.”

    There is always risk of the little matter of conscience.

    And, BTW, comparing Griffith’s version of reconstruction to Foner’s is like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on banking with Niall Ferguson’s “House of Rothchilds” (gaudy and not entirely reliable as it may be).

  • Barry Putterman

    Dear me, my conscience could bother me if I dare to watch THE BIRTH OF A NATION! Best to play it safe and just stick to my stash of Coen Brothers Nazi porn.

    I wasn’t aware that mentioning two things in the same sentance automatically became a comparison. I mean BTW.

  • Alex

    Barry, you should watch BoaN if you like, just don’t get TOO happily enthralled.

    I believe we are both referring to a reference to Griffith, DuBois and Foner as “versions” or “histories” of Reconstruction. I suppose I would have preferred “travestry” to “version.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, one might even call it a travesty of a mockery of a sham. But it is also a “version” which had a deep impact on the white Southern population in the era in which Griffith was growing up and still needs to be understood and contextualized in regards to its influence on American history from Reconstruction to the present.

  • Blake Lucas

    “…THE BIRTH OF A NATION can now be shown with special apologies and restrictions only.”

    Antii, speaking as someone who always greatly values and enjoys your contributions here, I must question this statement, and the reasons are historical, not historical to the film’s original release but to the time I first saw it–and a number of times since.

    I first saw it in the 1960s. It was in fact the first Griffith movie I saw. No one got up and gave any speeches or made any apologies, nor in other screenings over the next few decades. It seems to me that in the film culture of those days, moviegoers beyond the age of childhood were felt to have the maturity, intelligence and discernment to look at movies and try to understand them, both within the context of their times and in the wider view. I have never known any serious, thinking moviegoer to walk out of this film suddenly turned into a racist or embracing the Ku Klux Klan–and it always was possible to appreciate many beauties in Griffith’s direction without embracing the film’s point of view and I would say a fair number of sensitive moviegoers did then and still do.

    But in the last twenty years or so, something has happened with THE BIRTH OF A NATION that none of us who saw it then would have even considered would happen–scheduled screenings would be shut down by protests, or if it was shown, some commentator would instruct viewers on exactly how they were supposed to respond and how they were supposed to feel about it.

    I have to ask, what happened to the notion of an adult viewing experience in which the viewer could react intelligently and sensitively on his or her own? Take this away from movies and treat the viewer as a susceptible vehicle for whatever is put out there and you are essentially treating the medium as a vehicle for fascist suppression of individual consciousness, which leads to this one alternative of treating an “undesirable” movie like this one to censorship.

    I’m not exaggerating when I say what has happened to some screenings because I know of one that was scheduled and actually closed down here in L.A.

    THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a disturbing film (I actually believe this may be one of its virtues–whatever else, it’s not innocuous or casual in its racism, and many Hollywood films have been), but the idea of having to in some way protect viewers disturbs me even more.

    I’ve been trying to think the last few days if I ever posted here (because this is a film that always seems to come up again) some thoughts about Griffith troubling his own work, the mark of a real artist. This had to do with the episode of Flora Cameron/Mae Marsh jumping to her death to escape what she perceives as the rapacious advances of Gus/Walter Long. As Griffith realized the scene, Gus never touches Flora–he broaches the subject of marriage and when she runs away, he runs after her saying he only wants to talk to her (if you really think about it, his attraction to her is no different than that of the lovelorn sentry in the hospital to Elsie Stoneman/Lillian Gish earlier in the film that everyone always finds so charming). Any rape here that is in the viewer’s mind is in fact only in their mind, not in the film, as it is in Flora’s mind–it is her own fears that kill her. Nevertheless, the Southerners including her brother the hero of the film, feel justified in forming the Klan, with no evidence Gus caused her death, and then summarily execute an innocent man as one of their first acts.

    What interests me about this is that since Griffith is so intent on putting us on the Klan’s side, why are they so clearly murderers and in the wrong? It seems to me that he could have easily had Gus actually rape Flora, or at least try to do so, and he doesn’t. That he then tries to put us on the Klan’s side anyway is kind of appalling, and makes me pull away from the film–but the overall context makes the whole more interesting because the more sophisticated artist cannot help but show the irrationality and sexual basis of racism, which is perhaps as important as its hatefulness.

    Well, forgive me if I said all this before somewhere. I haven’t been back to THE BIRTH OF A NATION in a long time, because I’ve seen it a lot and honestly think I’ve gotten as much as I can out of it and those last reels are no pleasure for me. It was the first Griffith I saw and INTOLERANCE the second and they both impressed me enough for myriad beautiful things in the filmmaking that he was probably already quickly on his way to being one of my favorite filmmakers, which he has always remained. But I’ve found over the course of time that the virtues present in his “big” films are not those I respond to most–I think he’s at his greatest in nuance as in so many of the early Biographs and later in TRUE HEART SUSIE and A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY, not to mention BROKEN BLOSSOMS and LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS and his last film THE STRUGGLE, all more intimate works where his formal command is no less and his piercing insight into his characters thrives to a much greater extent. I am most definitely with Robert Regan on THE MOTHER AND THE LAW–it was always the best part of INTOLERANCE for me in any event, and after seeing the larger film many times, years later I finally saw THE MOTHER AND THE LAW as a film by itself and felt it was much the more satisfying, greater work, free of the overarching theme and rich in its individual drama.

    Barry’s phrase “Lots of bang for your buck here” actually kind of describes Griffith’s bigger films and why they got all the attention for so many years, but for me it’s not in those films that he may be most deeply appreciated or contributed the most, however it may have once seemed.

    Also, re THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and leaving INTOLERANCE aside for the moment, as many commentators have observed before me, Griffith was in fact very progressive and indeed idealistic in his social attitudes in so many ways, especially as regards women, about whom he was forward thinking and also deeply understanding on emotional and psychological levels. In his body of work as a whole, I believe his deeper impulse was toward a tolerant world, which does complicate the racism in THE BIRTH OF A NATION as even the film itself does.

    Have to agree with what Dave said about Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth. He’s just great–I always looked forward to him in that role everytime I saw it.

  • Alex


    Well said. I won’t quibble.

  • Alex


    I think your response to Antii essentially skirts the very central character of BoaN as a celebration of the KKK as a champion of the defeat of Reconstruction, of Reconstruction as a (re)birth of the nation and as a film that energizes its ideological appeal with a recycling of “The Clasman”‘s own recent recycling of the narrative of the Black rapist that would help justify hundred of lynchings still to come and the effort to secure a caste system through terror. I thinkl your reference to some subtlety and nuance in Griffith’s treatment of the narrative central “rape” is a nice case of the lit theory saw about the “fissures” in every ideology, in this case of a fissue that hardly motifies the film’s main thrust, propaganditc thrust. It does this little diversion from its main thrust even less than did Vidor’s little reservations in his recycling of Kenneth Robert’s celebration of Roger’s Ranger’s Canadian incursion against French and Mohawk enemies of the crown modify his delight in total war.)

  • Blake Lucas

    Alex, the main point of my post was very simply anti-censorship. And more than that, I don’t think movies should have to be explained to people as if they were children anymore than scheduled screenings should be closed down. This did not used to happen and it’s an unappealing thing in the present culture, at least to me.

    I’m not especially keen to defend THE BIRTH OF A NATION–though don’t like seeing it overly simplified or misrepresented either. As I thought I made clear, the “celebration of the KKK” may be in of itself indefensible to me, and it certainly is central to the film–DWG takes them as heroic and justified even though he has actually shown they are not.

    What I pointed out is not some lit theory “fissure” at all–on the contrary, there is no subtlety and nuance that I can see to “Griffith’s treatment of the narrative central “rape”.” What happens is straightforward. There is NO RAPE nor anything close to it. But as the story moves on from that scene, the white southerners basically take an attitude any black man must be a rapist and must be guilty and that it can be taken on faith without proof–that attitude has indeed accounted for hundreds of lynchings as you say. To me, the fact that the hero and KKK can be valorized in Griffith’s eyes despite what the film shows makes it an incoherent work, but in an interesting way. If there had been a rape, or an attempted rape, it would be a more coherent work, and the heroes at least justified by the narrative, but it would be actually more ideologically beyond the pale than it is. However racist, Griffith is too much of an artist not to show truth that undermines his own assumptions about the story he is telling.

    That said, I’d reserve my defenses of Griffith’s subtlety and nuance for other of his films, and felt I was pretty clear about this.

  • “one might even call it a travesty of a mockery of a sham. But it is also a “version” which had a deep impact on the white Southern population in the era in which Griffith was growing up and still needs to be understood and contextualized in regards to its influence on American history from Reconstruction to the present.”

    Precisely Barry. C.Vann Woodward, a Southerner, has written one of the best accountants of Reconstruction “Reunion and Reaction”, and “Black Reconstruction” by DuBois published in 1935 was probably the first history to challenge the received narrative found in “The Birth of a Nation” (and reiterated in “Gone With the Wind.”)

    To respond to Blake’s carefully considered remarks, I saw “The Birth of a Nation” in 1969 or 1970 as part of a Griffith retrospective. Everything that I read about the movie up to then made only passing mention of the film’s racism and somewhat less of its distorted version of Reconstruction. The inter-titles periodically claimed that we were seeing a historically accurate re-creation, and there were actually some people who left the theater thinking this was true. Like Blake, I felt a growing unease with these scenes and the final valorization of the Klan that finally spoiled my enjoyment of the many fine moments that are manifestly there.

    “I have to ask, what happened to the notion of an adult viewing experience in which the viewer could react intelligently and sensitively on his or her own? Take this away from movies and treat the viewer as a susceptible vehicle for whatever is put out there and you are essentially treating the medium as a vehicle for fascist suppression of individual consciousness, which leads to this one alternative of treating an ‘undesirable’ movie like this one to censorship.”

    I’m sorry to say that we now live in a culture where many people seriously believe that President Obama is not a US citizen and is a secret Muslim and even a socialist (would that it was true!), and so I think the movie needs a context when it’s screened today.

    I really don’t think that “The Birth of a Nation” is in danger of suppression; it was just released on Blu Ray after all. That public screenings excite controversy is all to the good in my opinion.

    Finally, Blake writes “To me, the fact that the hero and KKK can be valorized in Griffith’s eyes despite what the film shows makes it an incoherent work, but in an interesting way. If there had been a rape, or an attempted rape, it would be a more coherent work, and the heroes at least justified by the narrative, but it would be actually more ideologically beyond the pale than it is. However racist, Griffith is too much of an artist not to show truth that undermines his own assumptions about the story he is telling.”

    I agree with this assessment and it sums up “The Birth of a Nation” accurately for me.

  • jbryant

    I always wonder who the protesters think are showing up at screenings of THE BIRTH OF A NATION — Klan members? Folks on the fence about racism? The chronically gullible? Seems more likely to me that only cinephiles and history buffs would go out of their way these days to see a B&W silent (unless THE ARTIST sends a bigger spark through the zeitgeist than I’m expecting it to). If there’s one thing that unites the average racist with the average non-racist, it’s undoubtedly a complete lack of interest in any movie made before they were born.

    At any rate, as Blake says, adults with an interest in such films should be able to attend screenings without hassle, unless the proceeds are going to the KKK or something. I have no problem with some opening contextual remarks, but again, it’s not likely that someone would wander in to a screening of this film without already having at least a rough idea of what they’re getting into.

  • Thank you, Blake Lucas (December 2, 2011 at 5:46 pm) and others, and excuse me for the delay in answering! The day I wrote my last mail I got into a bad traffic accident. The good news is that I’ll fully recover and that the other party, a true gentleman, acknowledged full responsibility. Now my wife has bought me a widget so I can get online in the hospital.

    Blake, we have two rights here. 1) The freedom of speech. Everybody can watch THE BIRTH OF A NATION at will. 2) Protection from hate speech (hate speech is a criminal offense in our land). But in our country there has never been any restriction to private gathering of information (for example watching a blu-ray at home) (a sole and recent exception is child pornography).

    Screening THE BIRTH OF A NATION in our country is now basically the business of our film archival series. I confess I was very naive and stupid in 1995 when I proposed to the cultural attaché of the U.S. Embassy – a refined black gentleman – that we might celebrate the Centenary of the Cinema with a D.W. Griffith retrospective. End of conversation!

    And I truly understood why two years later when I saw the movie in Pordenone as a live cinema event.

    When we finally got to mount our Griffith retrospective some years later, THE BIRTH OF A NATION was the turbulent highlight. I watched both our screenings, and the reaction was completely different. In one of them, the audience was laughing at the atrocities (“Aryan birthright”, etc.). In the other, there was an icy atmosphere of contempt. Clearly for us THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a problematic film to screen.

  • Dear Antti – shocked to hear about your accident and I’m very relieved that your getting better!

    Get well soon!

    Ja hyvää joulun odotusta!


  • “I always wonder who the protesters think are showing up at screenings of THE BIRTH OF A NATION”

    The media. Picketing and leafletting at a public venue is a good way for grabbing attention. In the 1970s I joined some comrades leafletting outside the 8th Street Playhouse in NYC when “Love and Anarchy” was being screened to draw attention to the harsh sentences handed out to Noel and Marie Murray, Irish anarchists. We weren’t protesting the movie, but since it was about an anarchist it seemed a fitting a venue. Good publicity for the cause.

    I’ve also crossed picket lines to see movies: “Cruising,” “Hail Mary,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Had some good chats too. Of course, it would be good to get the details of a protest held at a screening of “The Birth of a Nation.” who was protesting and tThe content of the protest is important to know.

    To Antti, do get well soon.

  • Alex


    I totally agree with you on anti-censorship

    I agree with you as well on the less “big bang for the buck” Griffith films, especially the more American ones like “True Heart Suzie” and “Way Down East.” The European set ones, like “Broken Blossom” and “Orphans of the Storm,” are great fun but melodramaitially a bit over the top for me ( “Isn’t Life Wonderful ” excepted).

    I enjoy “Intolerance” a lot form it vigorous and lucid virtuosoty but donwe think it any mopre profound on :tolerance: than, say, “Avatar” on environmentalism.

    To paraphrase you I’d say “However much an artist, Griffith is too much of racist not to stay faithful to the Jim Crow mythology when its at issues.”

    Recalling your defense of McCarey’s “My Son John” I think you tend to have more faith there’s some ultimate political wisdom at work when artists express themselves on political matters than i think.

  • Antti,
    Get well soon!
    I always enjoy reading your posts.
    Having been looking at Average Shot Length (ASL) for D.W. Griffith in the CineMetrics database:

    Most of Griffith’s silent features come in the 4.7 to 7.5 second range.
    This means they are cut more rapidly that the typical Hollywood studio era sound film.
    John Ford’s sound movies tend to cluster around 7.1 to 12.9 seconds, for example.
    Ford’s silents are in the same faster pace as Griffith’s.

    Ken Russell’s data clusters around 8, although ELGAR is slower and TOMMY is faster.

    Michael Bay goes from 2.2 to 3.4: three or four times faster than Russell or Ford!
    He exemplifies what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity” in modern Hollywood.
    Bay is hardly extreme: some current films have ASL’s of nearly one second!

  • Biologists have been gathering massive amounts of data: especially sequences for DNA and proteins.
    According to the New York Times, they are accumulating so much data they are overflowing servers and choking networks:

    I wish we had that problem in Film Studies.

    We could use vastly more data on films: what is actually going on, on-screen.
    What biologists are doing should be a model to us.

  • Watched a good Ken Russell film not seen here before, ANTONIO GAUDI.
    It’s a 15 minute documentary on the Barcelona architect.
    Part 1 is here:

    This is a good visual experience.

  • Oh, well! European Film Award 2011 to MELANCHOLIA by “von” Trier. No prizes to Finnish film or filmmakers… I would have thought at least that Timo Linnasalo, the cinematographer of LE HAVRE, would have won for his beautiful photography, but it turns out he wasn’t even nominated.

    I didn’t “like” MELANCHOLIA, but what is there to like? The first ten minutes and the last ten were magnificent film making and the evocation of Bunuel and Dali -like surrealism with the Tristan and Isolde music was intriguing. But the central, boring/bored festivity of the bourgeoisie has been seen too many times and Trier’s hand held camera and affected in your face intimacy/spontaneity with clipped shots got tiresome.

    And were we supposed to despise the only characters which seemed human: the young guy with whom Kirsten Dunst’s character had sex, the husband, and the Gainsbourg character? The dialogue and situations looked like they were based on uninspired improvisation sessions populated with stock characters like the bad businessman Sarsgaard senior and the totally useless father figure of John Hurt.

    Trier seems to like to cast “stars” nowadays in a curious “face dropping” manner, but unlike in Woody Allen’s better films, he doesn’t give them enough to do or interesting dialogue. However, it was nice to see Kiefer Sutherland in a rare, important role.

    But it started and ended well.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Per the question raised upthread, I had just moved to San Francisco in June 1980 when a theater showing BIRTH was attacked, supposedly, X, by “Berkeley anarchists” according to Jack Tillmany in his book about SF movie theaters, “Theatres of San Francisco” ( Tillmany operated the Richelieu and at least one other S.F. rep house before his present career as author of photo collections about movie houses. I wasn’t there that night, but the incident did get a lot of attention at the time.

  • Robert Regan

    Movies have always been an easy target. Attacking a film, whether the issue is race, sex, violence, or whatever, is still almost guaranteed publicity for the cause as well as the film. The protests may be justified, as this discussion has clearly shown, but the motivations of the demonstrators are sometimes questionable. Is attacking or banning the offending film a solution to the real or perceived problem? Edison, Griffith, Rosellini, Kazan, and Scorsese have, among others, taken an often undeserved share of abuse along with the accompanying share of publicity for the films.

  • David Cohen

    It seems to me that folks inclined to show Birth of a Nation and folks inclined to try to shut down Birth of a Nation tend to operate on entirely different planes of thought.

    At the protest I posted about above (date Nov. 29), I remember one of the leaders hollering that we had obviously scheduled the movie early in the quarter (Northwestern has quarters, rather than semesters) so they wouldn’t have time to organize against it. Found that to be a funny statement because 1) we didn’t know they existed and 2) even if we did, we weren’t savvy enough to address a possible protest that way.

  • Blake Lucas

    Times pressures prevented me all week from a reply to Alex’s post of 12/3, 5:08 and somehow had it in mind all the time this was from Antti!

    Confusing because Antti had written a somewhat different reply just a little before, but in any event, first, Antti, if you see this, let me join others in hoping you are recovering well and quickly and wishing for your well-being.

    Now, very briefly, Alex, first…

    “To paraphrase you I’d say “However much an artist, Griffith is too much of racist not to stay faithful to the Jim Crow mythology when its at issues.””

    Although I don’t believe I would personally ever write that line the way you did, I also don’t think your paraphrase is necessarily a contradiction of what I originally wrote which you paraphrased–the two things can both be true.

    Mainly, I wanted to respond to this because it implies a complex subject:

    “Recalling your defense of McCarey’s “My Son John” I think you tend to have more faith there’s some ultimate political wisdom at work when artists express themselves on political matters than i think.”

    In three words, “No, I don’t.”

    I don’t think I credited THE BIRTH OF A NATION with any “ultimate political wisdom” in what I said about it, and wouldn’t say this for MY SON JOHN either. I don’t remember exactly what I said in defense of MY SON JOHN but I know it would have been on a single point–that it is the all-American family, and specifically Robert Walker’s parents and the family dynamics involving the three of them, that have created him as a Communist. McCarey’s very right-wing anti-Communist views in the 50s are not ones I remotely share and to which I am not at all sympathetic, and may readily be argued to be simplistic in themselves, but he deserves credit for not being simplistic in the film, for seeing the “poison” in Walker originating in the family, and it had a lot of psychological insight in that respect. I don’t know if I wrote what I did here before seeing the film again within the last few years–I saw those same things in it so will stand by that view but my defense of MY SON JOHN as a movie would be kind of equivocal on the whole. It has amazing scenes with those characters and is never uninteresting but tends to play very heavily a lot of the time, with a more labored feeling than the best McCareys, and Robert Walker looks really sick throughout, understandably so but it’s kind of distracting.

    More to the point, on the idea of “ultimate political wisdom,” again I do not expect this from a work of art, but as the examples of Griffith and McCarey here show, even if we are unsympathetic to the position of an artist in a given work, it is in the nature of an artist to question, and to be sometimes ambivalent and ambiguous in how they express their views within a work. I don’t say that’s always so. I could only watch TRIUMPH OF THE WILL once, but I’m not sure how much of an artist she really is, because to me it’s a simple film, and not interesting at all, Nazi-like in style as well as content.

    In any event, I wanted to carry this on a little to new thread “Je vous salue, Jean-Luc” because I thought this notion of “ultimate political wisdom” could naturally be debated there and of course it already has been. Originally, I thought it would be a “less heated” thread for that discussion but I’m not so sure that turned out to be the case. Racist though he may be, even Griffith was not called a “garbage head”…

    In any event, will follow this with post there I’ve already written, belated but it looks like the thread is still up.

  • As Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” is echoing on the radio right now, it reminds me of the fact that the Joseph Carl Breil score was probably the first instance in the cinema where it was memorably used – alas, to bring a tremendous thrill to the ride of the Ku Klux Klan. For any student of film history it is important to know this, also because of later instances of intertextuality, such as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s intertextuality with Griffith was certainly conscious.

    As a non-American I have been late in understanding the meaning of the ominously stirring “Bonnie Blue Flag” anthem, and THE BIRTH OF A NATION may have been the first movie where it is unforgettably used. Since knowing this, the latter references to the tune in John Ford movies have gained new significance. Especially poignant is the “Bonnie Blue Flag” reference during the opening melody montage in THE SEARCHERS, when Ethan Edwards is about to appear from the desert; it is one of the four main themes introduced in the beginning.