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MIT staff blogger Bryan G. Nance

Is It Possible To Respect A Racist Film? by Bryan G. Nance

We must learn to embrace the opportunities to confront ourselves by confronting others.

Now that CPW is behind us, I am beginning to return to my life as a mild-mannered Admissions Officer. I have to admit that I’ve been excited to get back to one of my favorite hobbies, movies. Just as I got ready to fire up the Yamaha YHT-160 (5.1 channel A/V Home Theater receiver with built in Dolby Digital) and watch the latest pay-per-view selection I noticed that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) was holding a month-long movie retrospective entitled: Race & Hollywood Black Images on Film. I immediately began watching (and Tivoing) movies. What a treat! Here were all the movies that I love and some that I always swear to rent next time I’m at the video store but which ultimately end up losing out to likes of Batman Returns or Sin City.

Anyway… (Stay on target!) Monday night’s movie selection was very disturbing: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. This movie, shot in 1915, has been described as “a legendary classic, [that is] technically innovative and sweeping. Director Griffith made brilliant use of the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting. His once-record-breaking $100,000 spectacle ran over three hours and eventually altered the entire course and concept of the feature film.”

It has also been described as: explicitly racist. Shortly after its release, the newly-formed NAACP bitterly condemned Birth of a Nation for “its racist and vicious portrayal of blacks, its proclamation of miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance, and its endorsement of slavery.” They went on to call this cinematic masterpiece “the meanest vilification of the Negro race.”

Even more shocking was Director Griffith’s response to the controversy. He claimed that he was not racist. When screened at the White House for then-President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson, he was quoted as proclaiming, “It not only historically accurate, but like “history writ with lightning.” According to IMDB, this was the ‘first’ true blockbuster, making $18 million. It was the most profitable film for over two decades, until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released years later. If we adjusted the gross to fit the present day consumer price index, Birth of a Nation would have made over $336 million dollars. This movie is credited with massive race riots throughout the country.

So why was there such an uproar over this movie? As provided by IMDB, here is the plot summary: “Two brothers, Phil and Ted Stoneman, visit their friends in Piedmont, South Carolina: the family Cameron. This friendship is affected by the Civil War, as the Stonemans and the Camerons must join opposite armies. The consequences of the War in their lives are shown in connection to major historical events, like the development of the Civil War itself, Lincoln’s assassination, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. In its climactic finale, the suppression of the black threat to white society by the glorious Ku Klux Klan helped to assuage some of America’s fears about the rise of defiant, strong black men and the repeal of laws forbidding intermarriage.”

I can’t say that I sat through all 3.5 hours of the movie. (Remember I have 2 kids under the age of 3.) But I saw enough of the movie to get the gist of it. I found that I wasn’t affected as emotionally as I thought I would be. Don’t get me wrong; it lived up to every bit of its racist billing. Yet when put into proper context, I was left feeling empowered by the situation. This brings me to that age-old argument of censorship. Even if done for the right reasons, I believe that censoring the isms (sexism, racism, classism, etc.) can lead to serious blowback. The very thing that you hope to deny exposure to the light can often grow in power by the recesses of the dark. Should there be limits? Of course there should! This is not the movie to show to kindergartners in lieu of Barney and Sesame Street. But it most definitely should be shown to smart and precocious high school students. Discussions around race issues in this country have devolved to sound bites. Most people are retrenched in their own personal feelings that they believe to be 100% correct. The implication is that anyone with opposing thoughts must be 100% wrong.

Better yet, let’s really drive this home. We live in a world of extreme political correctness. As such, we are willing to choke off and suffocate any topic of conversation that is deemed uncomfortable. We mask these uncomfortable thoughts from ourselves by claiming that any discussion of the matter may offend others around us. So who are we looking to protect – others, or ourselves?

I think we do significant damage to ourselves by playing the political correctness game in these situations. For example, if someone were to tout some of the cinematic achievements of Birth of a Nation, your first reaction might be to brand that person as a racist. Yet PC norms might keep you from calling the person out as such. So you’re then left with a feeling of inner rage and left to harbor ill will towards the person making the comments – which may or may not be justified (without bringing up the issue, you’ll never know for sure).

Look, I’m not saying that the person speaking positively of Birth doesn’t have a responsibility to act responsibility with his or her comments. But we must learn to embrace the opportunities to confront ourselves by confronting others.

How is it possible that a movie is technically brilliant yet morally repugnant? How can I respect this film for innovation, yet simultaneously abhor it for content? How do you hold seemingly contradictory ideas in your head at the same time? It’s a tough one, I’ll grant you that. But growth is painful. It has been my experience that the people who are the most successful in life are the ones who never stop learning.

I learned quite a bit about myself by watching Birth Monday night. Even though this movie is actively being used as a modern day recruitment tool for the KKK, I will no longer feel the same level of anxiety about Birth as I did before seeing it. Confrontation can be a good thing… if handled correctly.

Enough from me… what do you think?

9 responses to “Is It Possible To Respect A Racist Film?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    mild-mannered?!!! hehe

  2. You just echoed my sentiments on this topic. It’s the same thing as watching any anti-Jewish movie, for me, since it hits closer to home. I still watch them so I can see what all the hubbub is about and then be able to have intelligent discussions on the content of the film. That is not to say I don’t get pissed off when people support the content of movies that are blatantly anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli, but I think it’s important to bring issues out to the forefront and not hide behind the political correctness everybody feels they need to hide behind.

    In other words, I completely agree with you; and now I want to watch Birth.

    You can only beat an issue by understanding it first. Without understanding it, you have no basis on which to argue and nothing to confront. Often not understanding it is easier than actually watching an emotion-raising movie or reading an emotion-raising book and then having an emotion-raising discussion, so people avoid such things. That’s sad.

    My $.02

  3. Caroline says:

    I have to admit, I don’t experience any ‘racial situations.’ At all. I live in southern NH, and go to a school with 1 African American, 1 Asian American, and 0 Hispanic students, out of my class of ~250 (Maybe 2 Asians? I don’t really pay attention). But we’ve had discussions about race, in our own isolation, and are generally very open minded – to the point where, when encountered with racial differences, it’s not ingrained in us that there *are* any differences.

    While I say that, I think it’s important to note that in the context of the country, racial tension still runs high and is deeply ingrained into our history and culture. We are a country that learned, as young children, about the wonderful victories of the Revolutionary War, and gloss over the pains of the Civil War, which ultimately define us as a people.

    As such, I think there is historical merit to this film — so long as people can step out, and view it as a terrible, sad viewpoint that we need to overcome as a nation. The thing is, what happened with the Civil War and the KKK is true – The sentiments might be morally terrible, but they occured, and not just in isolate segments. It’s important to take responsibility for that, as it is part of our history.

  4. Christina says:

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!!! THANK YOUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Hey Borohovski!

    Thank you for your $.02! I agree with you agreeing with me. (What a love fest) Allow me to add an equally disturbing film: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

    This is a documentary about a man who world famous for buiding (get this) electric chairs. In fact, the reason he began his line of work was in hopes of creating a more humane death penalty instrument. Short storty long, He is hired by revisionist historian Ernst Zundel to “prove” that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Leuchter published a controversial report confirming Zundel’s position, which ultimately ruined his own career.

    Talk about disturbing.

    Thanks for having the moxie to speak your mind!

  6. John says:

    Definitely. One can appreciate Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (about the Munich Nazi Party Rally) as a highly technically skilled piece while both regarding and disregarding the fact that that same rally was immediately followed by the first laws in Germany barring Jews from most aspects of public life, leading ultimately to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the film, and Riefenstahl’s other propaganda works for the Nazi government were revolutionary in their cinematic style. The same can be said of the old Soviet “Battleship Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein, or any other propagandistic work. Film as art is perhaps the most powerful when the artist definitely has something to say, whether or not one agrees with it. Much better than this modern art “it’s up to the viewer” crap.

  7. Josiah Seale says:

    I agree with most and maybe all of the sentiments you express in your post, Bryan. For my money, the topic you’ve put your finger right smack in the middle of is one of the biggest threats to the long-term future of our society. This also ties into the question as to whether or not racist heroes should remain heroes.

    The temptation we all feel is to paint our perspective on history with broad strokes and stifle conversation about the grey areas. As an example, it’s safe and easy to say that the Klan is evil, the Nazis were evil, and Saddam Hussein and the Stalinists were evil too.

    I have no interest in even seeming to defend the atrocious actions of any of these parties. But it is extremely dangerous to paint them all as being uniformly maleficent forces of darkness. It is dangerous because it’s not true, and because it makes it seem like something that could never happen around us.

    Again, the temptation is to paint things in broad strokes with no nuances. We stifle the discussion and decide that Person X is bad and Group Y is good. We set up an artificial dichotomy and can then justify ourselves by looking at the good things around us and saying that at least we’re not as bad as Person X.

    In reality, Person X /is/ bad, but being “bad” doesn’t mean “uniformly and unambiguously bad.” It means “in the balance, the net effect is bad.” When we look at all observations as being somewhere along a spectrum, we’re a lot less likely to accept even small steps in the wrong direction. If everything is cut-and-dried good or bad, we’re a lot more likely to accept arguments about the ends justifying the means.

    This is why it’s so important to continue the examination and discussion about all of these data points. If we can say “Person X wasn’t really that far away from where we are now in a lot of ways, but Person X was ultimately bad for society and for humanity,” we’re a lot more on our guard than if we look at Person X as being a minion of evil and ourselves as being more or less good.

    So sure, /The Birth of a Nation/ showed a lot of talent and creativity and hard work, which are things we respect. But it also glorifies things that today we can look at as being relics of an antiquated and harmful view of the world. When we see it as being nothing but a representative example of evil propaganda and ignore the first bit, we’re a lot less likely to recognize modern items as being bad; we can point to their good aspects and turn a blind eye to the bad aspects.

    The problem flows in both directions, with the example of George Washington being a perfect example of the converse scenario. In balance, his effect on the nation was positive. That makes him “good” for our country. But he was not uniformly good, because he was human and a product of his times, much in the same way that we are human and a product of our times. There are no uniformly positive heroes; we’ll always find the warts if we look closely enough.

    Does that mean he shouldn’t be a “hero”? No, not really, because being a “hero” doesn’t mean that you are a paradigmatic example of everything good. Look at the original Greek “heroes” like Achilles. He was a cocky a… I mean, um, a cocky not-nice guy. You wouldn’t want him to marry your sister or anyone else yuo happen to care about. But he was a great warrior and in a lot of ways he made it possible to capture Troy. Does that mean that everyone should have emulated him in every way? Absolutely not. But it does mean exactly and no more than that. He was a great warrior and in a lot of ways made it possible to capture Troy.

    George Washington did a lot of great things for this country and in that sense is a hero. So did Henry Ford with the assembly line and Charles Lindbergh with his flight across the Atlantic. But George Washington was a slaveholder and Ford and Lindbergh were Nazi-sympathizers if not outright Nazis. It’s a mixed bag with these guys, just like it always is with everyone.

    So, all that to say, thanks for encouraging the conversations. If we can look at these people and their work as being those mixed bags and still recognize the bad and the good aspects as such, it means we’re a lot less likely to mix some of the bad into our own bags in the name of some perceived greater good or some nebulous long-term goal.

    This is way too long, though. grin Thanks for the post.

    +>Josiah S.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m interested also in the people’s opinions about whether heroes who were/are racist, such as George Washington, should still be considered heroes.

    A tangent — I was dismayed at the use of the word special in the i3 video. A student stuttered and struggled getting out words and the caption “He’s special” popped up beneath him, implying the students was acting like a special education (i.e. somehow disabled) student and that that was a joke. I was dismayed to see this at MIT, where I expected people to ge above mocking minority groups.

  9. I absolutely HATE to bring up something off topic! But. I was just wondering if you knew when decisions on Interphase are being sent out?

    That’s all…