Rebirth of old ideas?

While it's a bit late to call this a movie review, I saw D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in its entirety over the weekend. For a silent film, it's quite watchable, notwithstanding its outrageous racism and shameless advocacy of a crackpot cause. It's artistic qualities rank with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and, symmetrically, the ideologies behind both films are equally nonsensical. This 1915 film is credited by many historians with provoking riots (including riots against the film) throughout the century -- one modern riot, I am told, was responsible for the closing of San Francisco's Richelieu Theater in 1981. (Longer general discussion here, with a New Republic review is posted here.)

A sympathetic look at the Ku Klux Klan, in its time it was the biggest epic movie sensation ever made. Unfortunately, it led to a dramatic rebirth of the almost extinct Ku Klux Klan. (The original Klan had been disbanded by Nathan Beford Forrest in 1869, who felt that the original purpose of restoring white rule had been accomplished and that the Klan had become too violent and lawless.)

That this oddly named film would give birth to the new, modern Klan is only one of the contradictions which fascinate me. (I'm also fascinated that the most evil character in the flim is a mulatto, Silas Lynch, because of the unexplained assumption that race mixing produces a greater evil than either of the two mixes. From where derives such shameful logic?)

Another is its contributition to the rise of censorship.

1915 was the landmark year in the battle for free expression as that is the year that the movies lost the fight. In an attempt to show their controversial film ‘Birth of a Nation’ (what many consider to be the first American movie), the Mutual Film Corporation challenged the legality of the Ohio Film Board in court on the basis that the Board violated Mutual’s right to free speech. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where Mutual lost. Justice Joseph McKenna, who wrote the decision for a unanimous court, discussed the dangers of exciting the purient interests in children and audiences of mixed sense and stated that films were a business and not a part of the press. He elaborated:

"(Films) are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published or known; vivid, useful and entertaining no doubt, but…capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition.”

Considering what it did for the Klan, The Birth of a Nation certainly makes as good a case for censorship as can be made, for the country really would have been better off without the film ever having been made.

Not that this changes my mind about censorship. I think people have grown up a great deal since 1915, and are far more cynical, in the healthy sense of that word. Michael Moore can churn his hateful and biased propaganda (while other nuts can call for the extermination of Republicans), and we need not fear that any of it will cause millions of people to join crackpot organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

I could be wrong, of course. But I hope not!

In any case, I maintain that people are responsible for their own actions and opinions; not film makers for allegedly "inspiring" them. Anyone so weak-minded as to be transformed by propaganda films (whether Griffith's Liefenstahl's or Moore's) is unworthy of respect. Censorship is never warranted, for it stifles critical thinking -- the latter in my view being the only way to fight stupidity.

I do recommend seeing The Birth of a Nation, though, because it's a lesson in the history of film, and the history of popular hysteria.

More links:

posted by Eric on 06.07.04 at 03:16 PM


I'm against censorship.

I must note that it was the very "Progressive" Democratic President Woodrow Wilson -- the same President Woodrow Wilson who gave us the Federal Reserve System, the income tax, and the direct election of Senators -- who encouraged that movie "The Birth of a Nation", had showings of it in his White House, and officially brought Jim Crow into the executive branch of the federal government.

He was also no friend of free speech. He had Eugene V. Debs and other dissenters imprisoned for speaking out against America's entry into World War I. It was Republican President Warren G. Harding who freed the Socialist Debs. Calvin Coolidge, another un-"Progressive" Republican President, was a strong advocate of a federal law against lynching.

I have a book "Ronald Reagan: the Movie" by a Professor Rogin, a Marxist who teaches at Berkeley. One sentence in it that stands out for me is his description of a movie in which the actor Reagan played the hero, _opposing_ the Klan. Professor Rogin said that his students watching the film were "confused" by that. Reagan -- _opposing_ the Klan? Everybody knows that conservatives are racists!

Yeah, the great liberal reformer Wilson! Here's what he said about "The Birth of a Nation":

"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

(And nothing from a Marxist professor at Berkeley would suprise me!)

Eric Scheie   ·  June 7, 2004 9:39 PM

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