These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on November 18 and 19 in Theater 3, and on November 20 in Theater 2.
I have been struggling with The Birth of a Nation for nearly a half-century, since I first saw it as a teenager. On the one hand, it reaches the highest artistic plateau film had attained in its time, and it is probably, on balance, the most influential movie, in terms of technique, ever. On the other hand, it reeks of the conjugal evils of slavery and lethal white supremacy. How does one reconcile D. W. Griffith’s Leonardo-like genius with his sleazy acceptance of a worldview that is so shameful and repulsive? Can the excuses of slightly tempering the racism of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in his adaptation or of a nostalgic Confederate-soaked childhood be fully acceptable? How tolerable was this “blind spot”—as Atticus Finch termed racism in To Kill a Mockingbird—when it condoned the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan and helped start a new one in the twentieth century? And, does the film still matter as a social document? I would like to try to approach answers to these questions by begging your indulgence and recounting my personal journey (or journeys) as it relates to the film. Much of this will lie outside the scope of standard film history and criticism, but this is no ordinary film.
As a kid my first hero was Jackie Robinson (along with several obscure cowboy stars from B-grade Westerns). I went to Washington, DC, as a teenager as part of an integration march. In high school, I traveled with the basketball team as statistician, and I always wondered why our two Black stars got off the bus on the side of town that none of us would otherwise visit. At Rutgers, I wrote a paper on the school’s All-American-turned-activist Paul Robeson, who was at that time deemed unmentionable on campus. As one of the first American Civilization majors, to the delight of my professors, I decided to write my senior honors thesis on (you guessed it) The Birth of a Nation. (I think the paper is still moldering in the MoMA Library.) I was present when Dr. King had his dream. Sick of graduate school in 1964, I signed up for “Freedom Summer,” registering Black voters in Mississippi. When three guys were murdered to greet their arrival, I chickened out. In retrospect, I consider this decision cowardly but wise.
Forty-five years later, in September, I finally got to Mississippi. I took a weeklong bus tour, visiting numerous sites of the Vicksburg Campaign. For those of you who are not Civil War buffs (an addiction I owe in part to Griffith’s film), Vicksburg was known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” From its bluffs, the rebels controlled traffic on the Mississippi. When Vicksburg finally fell to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, simultaneous with Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, the South was doomed—although it took another twenty-one months of blood and agony to get to Appomattox.
While I accept the fact that firm impressions gleaned from stops at strip malls and overnights at industrial-park motels are suspect, I did form impressions that I want to share. What I found disturbing was that my fellow all-White buffs on the bus never seemed to broach the subject of what the war had been about. I don’t blame this on our guide, the estimable historian Edwin Bearss. He has an encyclopedic memory (extraordinary at eighty-six) of Vicksburg minutia in his head (gleaned from his 3,000-page study) and can tell you who did what to whom at what time of which day on any given spot 146 years ago. He did point out when the bus passed the town where Emmett Till was murdered, and he told us that the Black church at which we made a “pit stop” had replaced a structure burned by “nightriders” in the 1960s.
We met two descendants of former plantation owners who happily talked of what their ancestors did in the war (one proudly showed off family weaponry), but nobody (including me) had the effrontery to ask how many slaves they had owned. Mention of slavery was politically incorrect, and one wonders what our Black bus driver made of the whole thing. The final stop on the tour was the courthouse in Vicksburg, from which the victors finally raised the United States flag. It turns out that Jefferson Davis, who owned a nearby plantation, had started his political career with a speech in the courthouse square. Behind the building is a tiny restful garden overseen by busts of Davis and his wife. Back out front is a plaque calling Davis “the best equipped, most thoroughly trained, most perfectly poised man who had ever entered the arena of politics in America.” This encomium was offered by none other than Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, co-author of The Birth of a Nation, and mentor to D. W. Griffith. What I found most disturbing was that this plaque had not been installed in the 1910s or 1920s (the heyday of Dixon and the KKK), but was dated 1997. So, as recently as then, it was deemed acceptable to venerate Davis and see Dixon as more authoritative than vile.
So how relevant is the content of The Birth of a Nation today? When the congressman screamed out “You lie” to President Obama (and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times suggested his tone implied that he meant, “You lie, Boy”), it struck me that he was from the same South Carolina where Dixon enshrined his Klan and Griffith depicted the Reconstruction legislature as shiftless barefoot Blacks. In The Birth of a Nation the villain, Silas Lynch, played by George Siegmann, is, like President Obama, of mixed race. In the minds of Griffith and Dixon, this makes him preternaturally dangerous, combining alleged White intelligence with assumed Black bestiality. Yet because of Griffith’s unprecedentedly skillful artistry, the film remains the pachyderm in the movie palace and cannot be ignored.