D.W. Griffith's Neo-Confederate "Birth of a Nation" Epitomizes the Myth of the Racist South (Remastered on DVD)

Reviewed by Thom Hartmann

I lived for almost two decades in Atlanta, raised three children mostly in schools in that southern city, and was always amazed by how differently both the people of the South (and the teachers in our kids’ schools) viewed the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the way I’d learned it growing up in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit, Michigan, the heart of the industrial North/Midwest.

When we first decided to move from New Hampshire, turning over management of a nonprofit we’d started to others, to Atlanta where we saw great entrepreneurial opportunity (and took advantage of it, starting two successful businesses), Louise flew to Atlanta to spend a few days with a real estate agent to help us find a house. The woman’s first question (this was 1983) to Louise was, “Do you want to see houses in mixed neighborhoods, or just the whites-only neighborhoods?” Louise was so offended we ended up hours later with a different real estate agent, from a different real estate agency.

I remember talking with friends and employees who’d lived their entire lives in the South, and, when explaining, for example, why crazy old Lester Maddox (he lived about three blocks from my house, and always had a huge sign out front of his home decrying the conservative cause de jour) was the way he was, and was still treated with respect by Atlantans, more than once I was asked, “Have you seen ‘Birth of a Nation’?”

When I indicated I never had seen the film, they’d shake their heads as if to say that accounted for my lack of understanding of how things are in the South, and why people think and behave the way they do. More than once during the two decades of the 80s and 90s when we lived in Atlanta I made a mental note to rent the movie, but never got around to it.

Then Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I now live on a houseboat in Portland, Oregon – neither a hotbed of Southern white racism, nor a particularly diverse community – and hadn’t given much thought to The Birth of a Nation until the election of 2008.

Barack Obama eloquently addressed the race issue in America in his famous Philadelphia speech during the campaign, in large part in response to white racists on Fox News and other right-wing venues whipping up hatred against him by using an out-of-context clip from the preacher of a church he and his family attended. It was one of the rare occasions, actually, that he mentioned race at all; he was clearly running for President not as a man who was half African-American, but as a politician from Illinois who could accomplish the many and varied things needing to get done in America after the damage of 30 years of Reaganomics and Clintonomics.

Then came the health care bill. In what we now see was a “practice run” for the upcoming debates on climate change and carbon policy, oil billionaires funded front groups to organize “tea parties” around the country, ostensibly to protest the federal government having a role in expanding health insurance coverage to more (and mostly poorer) Americans. With the Tea Parties came the racists. And with the racists, came a wave of invective directed at a President of the United States like we hadn’t seen since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Jack Kennedy had proposed the legislation a year earlier, just before he was slain in Dallas, and it led to black-draped anti-Kennedy ads in the Dallas papers that fateful day.

As Frank Rich pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, the anti-health-insurance vitriol was all out of proportion for previous healthcare debates. But it was consistent with the intensity of emotion that had come from previous civil rights efforts, from the signing of the Civil Rights Act to the forced desegregation of the nation’s schools to affirmative action in admissions at the University of Michigan.

Talking about these things on the radio, I experienced an eerie déjà vu when – over the course of the past few months – at least three different African American callers, on different days and from different cities, asked me in passing, “Have you seen ‘Birth of a Nation’?” After the third caller, I went online and ordered it. Yesterday, Louise and I watched all three hours of it. You should, too.

Here’s the important stuff to know about “The Birth of a Nation.” It started the modern blockbuster movie era – it was the most successful movie of its era, a silent film in 1915 that grossed what in today’s dollars would be over $200 million. It was based on a novel titled “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, which romanticizes the creation and growth of the Klu Klux Klan. It presents as fact – sometimes quoting then-historian (and later President) Woodrow Wilson – untruths about the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the South, such as a black takeover of the South Carolina legislature forcing legislation requiring members to “wear shoes”, and kicked off a massive, nationwide resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s that lasted through the 1970s.

It is also one of the most brilliant pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, particularly given that it was made in 1915 and is a “silent movie” (there’s a musical soundtrack to the DVD, although in its day most theatres had a person playing the piano or organ to “soundtrack” the movie).

Roger Ebert said, “’The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

The Wikipedia entry for the movie (worth reading) quotes Eric M. Armstrong of The Moving Arts Journal as saying: “…The Birth of a Nation is as revered as it is reviled. Its unparalleled innovation and audacity, technically and narratively, coupled with its unprecedented cultural impact, makes it perhaps the single most important film ever made.”

Watching it last night, I kept remembering the White Southerners I’d known decades ago who cited it as the wellspring of their truth about the history of the 19th century (much of its Civil War battle scenes take place in Atlanta). And thinking about the African-American callers to my show, and how watching its caricature of Blacks during Reconstruction must have hit them like a hammer-blow, particularly knowing its impact was so great that after its showing in dozens of American cities in 1915/1916, White riots broke out and in at least one case an African-American was murdered.

If you want to understand much of the modern-day rage that is misdirected at our first African American President, and why White racism has simmered so deeply and for so long in the South, and what it could mean for America’s future if the secessionist rhetoric of idiots like Texas’s Republican Governor Rick Perry continue to fan the flames of racism, watch The Birth of a Nation. It’s compelling filmmaking, and provides an important understanding of American history.

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