More than a hundred years ago, Hollywood had its first blockbuster hit, The Birth of a Nation (1915) by groundbreaking director, D.W. Griffith. Griffith defined some of the basic grammar of cinema language, like the close up, and he realized that people in the future would be more likely to gain their knowledge of history from films than from books. Griffith was also racist, “Son of the South,” who adapted his screenplay from a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The film paints and ahistoric farce, in which the noble Confidence is overrun by Northern Carpetbaggers and rapacious Negroes who can’t keep their hands of the White Women. Finally, a group of valiant Southerners band together and form the KKK to save the day.
This clip shows the Klan turning the tide against the Blacks (many of whom are really White Men in blackface). Jump ahead to 4:14 to see the triumphant “happy” ending of the film, where they stop the racially inferior, subhumans from voting and preserved The South for the White Man.
I love to show this in film or mass media history classes because it never ceases to shock my students. Yes, they know there was slavery, Jim Crow, and even lynchings, but this is something different. This is pop culture glorifying the suppression of millions of human beings and selling out theaters from coast to coast while doing it. This is where we come from and why we are still struggling with the ridiculous misconception that their is more than one human race. This is America, even bit as much as baseball and apple pie, and it is why we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people are still trying to hold on to, “White America,” or, “Make it Great Again.”
There have been many films over the year about slavery and the Civil War but arguably none as influential as Griffith’s. Awhile ago I wrote down an outline for a movie about Nat Turner and John Brown; two controversial and important figures in the struggle for freedom who are largely overlooked. I showed it to a couple friends with Hollywood connections; one of whom said, “It could win an Oscar, if anyone would fund it, which they wouldn’t,” and the the other said, “I just run into a guy who is making a movie about Nat Turner.” The guy was Nate Parker and his film, The Birth of a Nation (2016), was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with influential opinion makers talking about it as an Oscar contender l0ng before it was even scheduled to hit theaters this October.
I have been looking forward to seeing Parker’s work, as a director and an actor, to see how he deals with this controversial history; but a new and different wave of controversy has come up around his film’s release. Back when Parker was 19 and attending college at Penn State, in 1999, he was accused and acquitted of raping a woman. As the details have come to light in a much larger public eye, many feel that Parker should have been convicted; particularly after it became widely reported that his alleged victim killed herself in 2012. Gabrielle Union, who plays a rape victim in Parker’s film, and who was rape victim in real life, has spoken out about this in a moving way, suggesting that the film is, “as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation,” about things we don’t like to talk about but need to. Parker has also spoken up about what a “dog” he once was and how he is, “trying to be better.” I’d like to take him at face value, accept that he is being sincere and move forward. I certainly hope that people will still see the film; I know I will. But this awkward and difficult situation raises another question I wish more people would ask themselves: How quick I am to judge others?
Are seminal figures of American Self-Government like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson nothing more than slave owners? Are rebellious freedom fighters like Nat Turner and John Brown nothing more than murders? Are artistic visionaries like Griffith and Parker nothing more than flawed men; a racist and a rapist? If that is the furthest we can think then we are not thinking at all.