Friday, March 4, 2011

A contemporary view on The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I applaud all projects that involve digitalization of media, whether it be old newspapers or audiovisual. Everyone should have the right to study history, as I argued in my previous post. Do you want to know what Rev. Dr. Charles H. Pankhurst had to say about D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in El Paso Herald (Texas) in 1916? Let's see!

[Do your own searching at Library of Congress. There you can find digitalized American newspapers from 1860 to 1922. Click on the "Search Pages" button, and write whatever you are looking for. I could sit there for hours.]

"A boy can learn more true history and get more of the atmosphere of the period by sitting down for three hours before the film which Mr. Griffith has produced with such artistic skill than by weeks and months of study in the classroom."

Well, about that... If I remember correctly, that film is not really historically correct? And wasn't it, if I'm not mistaken, kind of... racist? Dr. Pankhurst explains:

"The criticism that it exhibits the negro in an unfortunate light and that it is calculated to engender racial animosity is fully met by the consideration that it represents the negro, not as he is now at all, but as he was in the days when he had just had the chains broken from him and when he was rioting in the deliciousness of a liberty so new and untried that he had not yet learned to understand it and was as ignorant as a baby of the way to use it. It is in this respect exactly true to history, and if it reflects upon the negro as he was then it is a compliment to the black man of today."

Oh, I'm glad Dr. Pankhurst solved those misunderstandings! He has obviously also checked that all facts represented in the film corresponds with facts, since he claims that "[o]n Griffith's screen we see the real thing." Like he said before: schools should show this film when teaching about the Civil War!

And how did the audience react upon viewing this spectacle? Except for them being so excited that Dr. Pankhurst had "been crowded upon, pressed down and run over"?

"Every eye was dim with tears in the strangling hush that fell on the theater. What might not our country have been saved had the problem of reconstruction been left to the great heart - the one man who compassed within himself the resources of the intelligence, experience, breadth and sympathy of Abraham Lincoln!
'The Birth of a Nation' has my unqualified approval."

You can find Dr. Pankhurst's entire review here.


Mykal said...

Attitudes about race certainly change over time, and certainly this film did not depict black Americans in a truthful light. yet, it is one of the most important films of all time. Griffith's camera moved, seeing things in a "cinematic" way. Simply by the way he used the camera regarding points of view, lighting, frame composition, etc. - film no longer simply recorded a stage play - the camera became, in Griffith's hands, an instrument of art.

The language of film, and certainly the history of the American film industry, begins with D. W. Griffith. No film-maker has ever catapulted the art form forward as forcefully as he did. His contribution was a quantum leap no one since has managed.

timbwilliams said...

Well, what can you expect of a picture that the President of the United States (himself a Southerner) declared to be the equivalent of "Writing History with Lightning?" Well, it's certainly a shocking film to watch, and I've only watched it, I believe, twice, and so far have not deigned to see it on DVD, the only feature in my Kino Griffith Masterworks Collection that I have not yet seen. That same DVD includes seven Griffith shorts dealing with Civil War themes, several of which feature equally patronizing, if not so outwardly hostile, depictions of African American slaves (often set to the tune of the cloying traditional song "Old Black Joe.")

Lolita Kane said...

I know the greatness if Birth of a Nation - I'm a film student, remember? ;) Anyway, it doesn't matter how innovative Griffith was with the camera techniques, it's really hard to ignore how twisted this film is!

Sounds lovely! You should have a Birth of a Nation evening with the family, on the 149th anniversary of the Civil War and everything!

Mykal said...

Lolita: I did have a bit of a lecture voice going, didn't I? I certainly remember you are a film student! I hope your studies are going well. Are you still loving it?

I think that it does matter, though, how innovative Griffith was. In fact, I would argue that it is the only thing that matters. That is the part that remains timeless. The ugly racism in the film has, over time, become so universally acknowledged a wrong that it has become the opposite of timeless: it is now so "of a time" as to be unimportant as a lesson. Not forgivable, exactly, but no longer worthy as a point of criticism of Griffith or his work. Certainly, the scene where black members of congress have there barefoot on desks eating chicken, and similar scenes, are appalling when seen with our modern eyes - but their importance is strictly sociological - as a benchmark of the times.

His camera work, on the other hand, is still potent and meaningful today.

Lord, I did it again, didn't I?

Christopher said...

If this film offends anyone then so should the final 2 installments of the Planet Of The Apes movies!

Maria said...

Gillar din blogg. Är precis som du, genuint intresserad av klassisk film och historia (asperger-varning!). Blev förvånad när jag upptäckte att du är svensk.

Lolita Kane said...

Mykal: You're hopeless, haha! I can only agree with what you say, and you about sum up the discussions we had at school about the film. It would probably be close to forgotten if there weren't any interesting camera work.
I still love the film studies! I am currently taking an advanced course and am preparing for an assignment size bigger... Fun, but I'm a little anxious!

Christopher: Word! Haha.

Maria: Åhå, trevligt! Tack så mycket! :) Lägg till mig på Facebook om du har det, så kan vi utbyta asbergertendenser!

Maria said...

Har facebook (men är dock ingen inbiten användare för stunden). Vad heter du, då?
Jag KAN ha fel men jag gissar på att eftersom du gillar Vladimir Nabokov och Some Like it Hot, så skriver du under pseudonym?
Jag heter Maria Bergström (kör också ibland med pseudonym i olika diverse forum ;) och jag ser ut som en liten tafatt 12-åring på mitt facebook-foto.

Lolita Kane said...

Det fanns flera Maria Bergström! Och "tafatt 12-åring" är ju en relativ beskrivning som går att applicera på många av bilderna. Kan ju inte adda alla, hehe. Lotten Kalenius finner du bara en av dock ;)

eddie lydecker said...

Lolita, i desperately want to bugger and sodomize you, however i wouldn`t really want to fuck you because vaginal penetration seems so ludicrously out-moded in this day and age.

Lolita Kane said...

Eddie Lydecker:
Haha, what the...? I'll take that as a compliment, although a quite original one. Give it your best shot, cutie.