Birth of a Shameful Legacy

Many years ago I endured a viewing of An Affair to Remember. In one scene a group of New York City schoolkids perform for their teacher. I did not see one black child. That is, not until two African-American boys came onscreen, danced, then left, never to be heard from again. When the film hit theaters in the 1950s I suppose few noticed the stereotyping, but it left me nauseous.

Much as I would love to pick on that interminable bore of a film, the truth is that An Affair to Remember was not a particularly egregious offender. It was merely one example of the casual racism prevalent throughout a large part of Hollywood’s history. The vast majority of mainstream films made before 1970 either did not show African-Americans at all or showed them in clearly subservient roles. They were maids, butlers or other characters with little identity of their own.

The realization above pains me. I have always been fascinated by film history and the studio system era in particular. Between Turner Classic Movies and the AFI Silver I have spent many wonderful hours seeing black-and-white and Technicolor images. In many ways, it is a rich, beautiful legacy of both art and entertainment. That is why it was so tough for me to accept that much of this legacy at best shuts out or at worst demeans people that were not white. I could write whole other columns about how movies treated Native Americans or Asians, but for expediency, I will focus on African-Americans now.

This year marks the centennial of a key cinema milestone. In 1915, one of Hollywood’s first visionary directors released a film called the first blockbuster. It changed the way movies were made and (depending on who you ask) either pioneered or at least popularized techniques still used today. Yet, you will not see any special 100thanniversary celebrations, no re-release or Special Edition Blu-Ray. For, as you may have guessed, that film is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

Millions of people saw The Birth of a Nation a hundred years ago. It became the first successful feature length film. President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House and supposedly said it was “like writing history with lightning.” Roger Ebert wrote, "[Griffith] did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or ‘establishing’) shots and various medium shots, close-ups, and inserts of details. The first close-up must have come as an alarming surprise for its audiences; Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story.”

Yet the film is unabashedly, unapologetically racist. It depicts a Civil War and Reconstruction where the white Southerners were the victims of blacks and their Northern white allies. Historian Josh Zeitz described the film as “replete with white actors in blackface portraying former slaves as alternatively dim-witted and infantile, or predatory and dangerous. In the climactic scene, white-robed Klansmen gallop into town and save Southern womanhood from the dual threats of radical Republicanism and racial miscegenation.”

Civil rights groups such as the NAACP protested The Birth of a Nation, but to no avail. The film’s popularity only grew, with devastating impact. Zeitz added that “In a deplorable case of life imitating art, a motley group of about 30 Georgians convened on Thanksgiving eve at Atlanta’s stately Piedmonet Hotel. They had been electrified by The Birth of a Nation and came with the express intention of re-inaugurating America’s most notorious and violent fraternity. The second Ku Klux Klan, which enjoyed expansive political influence and sowed unspeakable damage over the next decade, was quite literally a byproduct of Griffith’s handiwork.”

The Birth of a Nation did more than spawn the Klan’s revival. It crystallized a revisionist view of the Confederacy that Zeitz called “the noble Lost Cause.” In this view, the South’s secession from the Union was less about slavery and more about defending native soil against Northern aggression. The bravery of Confederate soldiers somehow made their cause honorable. After all, they were just fighting to preserve their way of life. “The noble Lost Cause” first started taking hold in the late 19thcentury, and The Birth of a Nation helped shape this perception throughout the U.S., not just in the South.

Have you seen The Birth of a Nation? I have seen clips, but not the whole film from start to finish. Most film buffs, even those who will go out of their way to see other silent films, have avoided this one. The film was so blatantly bigoted that public opinion, film scholars and eventually Hollywood turned on it. Ironically, that’s made the film more accessible than ever because the rights lapsed and it entered public domain. You can see it right now on YouTube for free. In 1998, the American Film Institute named its top 100 American films of all time, and ranked The Birth of a Nation #44. In 2007, it revised the list and left The Birth of a Nation off completely.

While The Birth of a Nation faded, its legacy endured. Look no further than the opening crawl of Gone with the Wind: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.” GWTW may not be as virulent in its racial ideology as The Birth of a Nation, but the yearning and nostalgia for “the glory days” of the old South are as strong as ever. Slavery is simply there as an acceptable part of life, without question. The slaves, and the former slaves in the reconstruction scenes, exist simply to serve the white people or offer comic relief. As in The Birth of a Nation, the film’s villains are not those that owned other human beings, but the Yankee soldiers who destroyed what the slaves had been forced to build.

Hollywood, critics, and audiences all embraced GWTW. It won ten Oscars, ironically including a Supporting Actress one for Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel became the first African-American Oscar winner for playing the stereotypical “Mammy.” Of course she could not even sit with her colleagues at the segregated Oscar ceremony. GWTW remains the highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation. The AFI’s original Top 100 list had the film at #4, and even in the 2007 update it still came in as #6.

Let me be clear, I am not saying the millions of people who enjoyed GWTW are all racist, or even predominantly so. The film’s romance, epic scope, and dazzling imagery have set standards films still try to meet. I am also not holding Hollywood responsible for Jim Crow laws, lynchings or the other atrocities African-Americans have endured, just as the Confederate flag is not responsible for the murders in Charleston. But, like the flag, the films are symbols of the ideas they represent.

As we have been so brutally reminded in recent weeks, symbols matter. The Confederate flag represents an army that fought against the United States of America. It represents an ideology directly tied to white people oppressing and exploiting those that were different from them. It represents those white people being so committed to that ideology that they were willing to send thousands of young men to their graves before giving up slavery. The most recent revival of the Confederate flag came in the late 50s and early 60s as Southern states used it as a banner for their stand against integration. Once again, the flag stood for a people who, when asked to choose between treating their fellow human beings as equals and preserving their precious “way of life,” chose the latter.

Isaac Bailey, an African-American journalist in South Carolina, recently wrote a heartfelt, insightful article for POLITICO, in which he described how black people have had to live under the Confederate flag and have had to drive to work on streets named after Confederate generals. Bailey wrote that “I suspect most white people in South Carolina would be outraged if Jews had to live in a Germany flying the Nazi flag to honor the bravery of the Nazi soldier without realizing that’s what black South Carolinians have been forced to do.” The flag, and all the statues and monuments to the Confederacy, send an unmistakable message to African-Americans that the enslavement of their ancestors means less than celebrating the supposed nobility of those who fought to keep that system in place. The African-American history does not matter as much, and if your history does not matter as much, then your lives don’t have the same value.

With movies the symbolism may be more subtle, although it certainly was not with The Birth of a Nation. Even if films did not openly advocate bigotry as that one did, they can still send a message. When both whites and blacks saw only films with no black people, or with them only in subservient roles, there was a message there about who counts and who does not. Most studio decision makers and filmmakers were not the types of bigots that Griffith was. They wanted to make money and did not want to risk alienating Southern filmgoers. But even that sent a message -- not to rock the boat. And certainly celebrating a film such as Gone with the Wind sends a message too, that holding onto the myth of Confederate nobility is acceptable.

As we have seen, attitudes can change. It should never have taken a church massacre for the Confederate flag to come down in South Carolina, but at least it finally did come down. Last year, while the Academy Awards celebrated the 75thanniversary of The Wizard of Oz, it thankfully did not do the same for Gone with the Wind. There was also no significant re-release. The triumph of 12 Years a Slave may have nudged Hollywood into a deeper understanding of how to depict that era on film. Certainly people have every right to see Gone with the Wind, just as they have every right to fly the Confederate flag on their own property. If I were programming a theater or a movie channel I would not show the film, but that’s my choice. If people do see the film, they may be a bit less likely to view it with such admiration. Critic and programmer Eddie Cockrell always said, “The movies don’t change, but you do.” The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind have not changed, but we have. Or at least I hope so.

Adam Spector
August 1, 2015

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