Anniversary of DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
[Randy Lewis teaches American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of two books on documentary film, the co-editor of a book on James Joyce, and the co-producer of several documentary films including Texas Tavola: A Taste of Sicily in the Lone Star State.]
Film history has a grim anniversary today. On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation in Los Angeles. A racist screed aimed at African Americans who sought to remake their lives during the era of Reconstruction, Griffith’s film became the first American “blockbuster” — an extraordinarily expensive movie whose jaw-dropping profits were not matched until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937. Like the Nazi documentarian Leni Reifenstahl, Griffith combined ideological violence with artistic accomplishment in a way that makes his work difficult to forget.
The film was “unforgettable” in a disturbingly positive sense for white audiences who lined up for tickets almost a century ago. The Birth of a Nation was shown 6,266 times just in the New York area in the first year of its release. Its most notorious screening was in the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson eagerly watched Griffith’s adaptation of the rancid Thomas Dixon novel called The Clansman. “That the President of the United States, himself a leading historian, greeted the film with unqualified praises tells volumes about the limits of American liberalism in the Progressive Era,” one film historian has noted. Perhaps most shocking to contemporary ears is the response often attributed to Wilson, who admired about the power and accuracy of the film: “It is like writing history with lightning!” No president has ever offered a stronger endorsement of an American movie.
What would George Bush make of Wilson’s comments? Given his talent for creative miscomprehension, Bush would probably hear the words “White” and “Lighting” and instantly think of Burt Reynolds. Why not? After all, Reynolds took his first step into Bandit-style stardom with the underappreciated White Lightning (1973), in which he played the first of the charismatic southern rascals that made him box office gold in the 1970s.
“Damn straight,” our moviegoer-in-chief might add as he fondled Burt Reynold’s DVD. “A crazy-ass good old boy running moonshine and trying to get away from the Po-Po in the fastest car this side of the General Lee…” A wistful smile would shoot across his face while he reached down to adjust himself with a manly tug. “Heh heh, I can relate to that.” Setting his steely gaze on the White House lawn, the President would add, “Been there, done that!”
George Bush deserves to see some movies, but nothing with an open-shirted Burt Reynolds outrunning the law. If life were fair, Bush would be required to watch a number of documentaries about current events. Hayder Mousa Daffar’s The Dreams of Sparrows would be a good start — it lets five Iraqi filmmakers offer their response to the US invasion. Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight might help the President to understand the illogic of his own foreign policy. But in the end I would choose When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee’s extraordinary look at the wreckage caused by Hurricane Katrina, FEMA incompetance, and the same institutionalized racism that made The Birth of a Nation into a hit.
Unfortunately, Spike Lee’s work won’t appear in the White House unless Bush starts dropping acid or Barack Obama gets elected. But we can screen it in our classrooms and homes. One of the best recent surprises I’ve gotten in the mail was a boxed set of When the Levees Broke from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Teachers College of Columbia University. Like many educators, I received the DVDs along with an excellent teacher’s guide — all for free. Hard-hitting documentary films can have trouble getting widespread distribution, so I felt obliged to call the Rockefeller Foundation to thank them for their efforts (email them at firstname.lastname@example.org).
George Bush might never see Spike Lee’s film, but at least we can share it with one another. One of the best ways to convey the reality of race in America, instead of the twisted mythologies that extend from Wilson to Bush, is to listen to the voices of ordinary people, black and white, who Lee interviewed in New Orleans for his four-hour film. I can think of no better way of showing students what “history written with lightning” might actually look like.
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