During the past week, I've been thinking extensively about ideals and presentation in relation to racial depictions in cinema. This all began with a viewing of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Outside of select horror films, I cannot remember a movie that filled me with as much discomfort and unease (actually, I take that back--it's tied with Todd Solondz's Happiness). Saying that Griffith's controversial masterpiece is offensive does not do the idea any justice. In comparison, a film like Gone With the Wind looks positive; it's nowhere near perfect, but at least Hattie McDaniel had the chance to play a strong, respectable character. Yes, her Mammy was a slave (tinted with the air of caricature), but she was presented as honorably as one could expect from 1939 values.
The Birth of a Nation portrays blacks in astoundingly negative ways. The main roles are done by white actors in blackface, and the actual black extras provide nothing but a perverse minstrel backdrop. Stereotypes abound--they eat watermelon, lust after virginal white women, and connive to deprive Southern white males of their supposed birthrights. The disturbing imagery was fresh in my mind as I continued my ongoing readings of my former professors. This week, I started The Trouble With Principle by Stanley Fish. Admittedly, I was very lost during the advanced theory course I took with him, yet the book contains passages that both made sense and had me mentally referring to The Birth of a Nation. Fish can be a difficult theorist to agree with at times, but his ideas can help us look into the ideals and morals behind the film. A (very) condensed summary of Fish's book is that principles too often exclude other views, or are so vague as not to offend that they end up expressing no opinions at all.
"One may practice one's religion, even if it is devil worship, in any manner one likes, but one may not practice one's religion to the extent of seeking to prevent others from practicing theirs by, say, supressing their sacred texts or jailing their ministers (Fish 58)."
Fish writes this in relation to freedom of speech, and as moral individuals we can disagree with the ideologies of Griffith and Thomas Dixon (who wrote the play The Clansman on which the film was based). Modern viewers need to take the bad with the good. The two men had every right to express their visions, as despicable as we may find them. When I mention "the bad with the good," the good is the quality of Griffith's filmmaking. Story and content aside, The Birth of a Nation was the Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction of the early 1900s, showing people the power of storytelling and visualization in cinema. The film has to be respected, remembered, and taught in that sense.
Roger Ebert's excellent essay on the film says that Griffith should be commended for his genuine attempts to atone for the film's racist imagery (Ebert cites his follow-up, 1916's Intolerance), but at the same time, the idea that Griffith wanted to adapt such a play shows that he had prejudices. However, wasn't he just exercising his First Amendment rights?
"...what is at stake in First Amendment disputes is never a principle, even though it is in the vocabulary of principle that the argument is usually conducted. Pornographers, Holocaust deniers, and cross-burners are not for free speech but for pornography, the denial of the Holocaust, and the intimidation of minorities. And on the other side, the homeless advocates who wish to sleep in federal parks, animal rights activists who heap scorn on fur-clad women, and antigovernment protestors who burn American flags are not for free speech either but for housing for the homeless, humane treatment of animals, and a change in U.S. policies (Fish 90)."
I both agree and disagree with Fish's assertions here (he would probably say that because of that, I have no opinion whatsoever). He defines speech in the literal sense of the word, whereas the examples constitute thoughts and actions. The First Amendment protects thoughts, but not actions; one can think about stealing a DVD from Best Buy, but violates the law when he/she puts those thoughts into action. How does filmmaking fit into this idea? The act of making a racist film is acceptable under these guidelines, because viewers can agree or disagree with the ideology, and buy a ticket or not.
Disturbing images abound in the history of film to make points, or to show stark realities. For example, take the scene of Gus's trial and subsequent lynching in The Birth of a Nation. In a non-racist film, these scenes could: 1.) show how life used to be, 2.) show the horrendous mistakes made in the past, and/or 3.) show the understanding that as a civilization, we've made great improvements (we're by no means perfect, but the majority of us now view lynchings as depraved crimes). However, juxtaposed with the rest of the film, the scenes are intended to show the "proper" mindset, despite title screens like the one above. According to Wikipedia, a white man killed a black teenager after viewing the film when it opened. Could (or should?) the blame have been attributed to Griffith? The film depicts lynchings as acceptable, but one could argue that the murderer had those feelings long before seeing the film. However, early film was greatly influential on the public, to a fault. The first filmed image of an oncoming train caused an audience to run in fear. Undershirt sales supposedly fell drastically after Clark Gable was shown without one in It Happened One Night.
On another note, I feel the need to identify myself as a white male in relation to criticism of the film's content. As a human being, I can acknowledge the destructive power of racist imagery, but I also have to acknowledge that I don't know how it feels. I can sympathize, but I don't know the anger of being stereotyped or depicted negatively in mediums, nor will I try. It is necessary to have white opinions on these ideas, but I don't want to come across like one of my former classmates at UIC (I've forgotten her name, not that I would use it here). She was a white woman who hailed from the suburbs of Chicago, and during a discussion on race and religion, she claimed to know how it felt to be discriminated against. Being outraged and educated on the subject is acceptable and necessary, but not pretending to have feelings that you know nothing about.
In conclusion, I can add nothing new to discussions of the film. Every article I've read has the same opinions: The Birth of a Nation is both a landmark and an embarrassment. However, the best idea comes from Ebert: "If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all." As educated adults, we simply need to accept it as part of our history. In discussions of civil rights and racial history, as I've said before, we need to take the bad with the good.
Fish, Stanley. The Trouble With Principle. Copyright 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.