“Dem free-niggers f’um de N’of am sho’ crazy.”
— dialogue card from “The Birth Of A Nation” (1915), “Part 2: Reconstruction”
“The result: The Klu Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule, but not without the shedding of more blood than at Gettysburg, according to Judge Tourgee of the carpet-baggers.”
— dialogue card from “The Birth Of A Nation”.
“It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
— allegedly the reaction of American President Woodrow Wilson after seeing Birth Of A Nation.
“Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.”
Roger Ebert reviews “Birth Of A Nation”, March 30, 2003
In March, 1918, the touring version of “The Birth Of A Nation” came to play at Vankleek Hill’s Town Hall. The three hour silent, black and white movie was considered at the time to be the greatest film ever made.
Many people in the fledgling American civil rights movement, however, also considered it to be the most racist film ever made.
The movie, directed and written by the brilliant David Griffith, portrays the Klu Klux Klan as a righteous organization created to save the Confederate South from the white “carpet-baggers” from the North and the “Negroes” who have been enthralled by their message of “we shall crush the White South under the heel of the Black North.”
Most serious modern film critics still consider the movie to be a classic, in fact it’s one of the few movies to score a perfect “100” on RottenTomatoes.com, a site which collects movie reviews from newspapers around Canada and the United States.
The editing and directing techniques used by Griffith — who basically invented modern film making, and was the movies producer — were groundbreaking and still used in films today.
But can a movie be “great” even though it’s completely inaccurate when it claims to be an historical documentary, when it was created to be propaganda for a racist and deeply flawed ideology, and when it was later used for decades as a recruitment tool for an organization which used beatings, rape, torture and murder as tools to intimidate an entire class of people?
And what happens when that movie, with it’s overt racism and presented as historically accurate, tours across rural, 1918 Canada, where “racial integration” is mostly meaningless because there’s no other colour than white for days in any direction?
The movie arrived in Vankleek Hill three years after it was first released in 1915. By the time it played here the movie had already been debunked across most of the United States as a white supremacist fantasy, but the ad which ran in Vankleek Hill’s newspaper, ‘The Eastern Ontario Review’, boasted of “startling facts that explain its vogue”, which essentially means “this movie is huge because of its Truth”.
The Reviews editorial, printed in the same issue as the advertisement, claimed The Birth Of A Nation “records its facts with the rapidity of lightning”, which was basically a reprinting of a quote from President Woodrow Wilson, which was used in the movie’s promotional material.
So walking into Vankleek Hill’s Town Hall — where the twenty-five cent 3:15pm matinée was held specifically for school children — local residents would have been expecting an extravagant retelling of the post-Civil War reconstruction.
And what they got was the technological equivalent of seeing “Avatar” in IMAX 3D after only having access to a black and white, full screen version of “The White Gorilla” broadcast in mono to a 6″ TV screen.
What they saw was groundbreaking and revolutionary. There were “stage effects”, which would have been small fireworks and smoke to intensify the battle sequences, a cast of 18,000 people and 3,000 horses, there would have been loud, live music “conducted by the famous Concert Master, Norman Thorp”.
In his 2003 review of the film Roger Ebert wrote “[Birth Of A Nation was] cited until the 1960s as the greatest American film, “Birth” is still praised as influential, ground-breaking and historically important, yes–but is it actually seen? Despite the release of an excellent DVD restoration from Kino, it is all but unwatched.”
And he’s right, “Birth Of A Nation” has been available for rent at the VideoTron in Hawkesbury since 2005, but has only been rented ten times (including once by me just a week ago).
Very few people today would care to see a silent movie, and very few movie rental stores even carry them — VideoTron in Hawkesbury has a great selection of old movies.
Today the same level of bigotry and misinformation can be found in infinitely inferior movies such as “Valley Of The Wolves: Iraq” (2003), produced in Turkey with Billy Zane and Gary Busey, and called “rabidly anti-American” by the BBC. The basic story involves a Jewish doctor stealing organs from Iraqi civilians / casualties to sell to Israeli citizens.
It holds the record for Turkey’s domestic box office for a Turkish produced film, Turkeys Parliamentary speaker-of-the-house referred to it as “absolutely magnificent”. During its release it was presented by the screenwriter as being “60 to 70 percent true”.
So if a poorly produced movie filled with such bigotry and hate, starring actors of such poor quality, and with a barely passable script, can be accepted as ‘70% true’ in a major democratic country such as Turkey in this infinite-channel universe era, how would a citizen of 1918 Vankleek Hill fare walking out of a showing of the greatest show ever produced — which just spent three hours teaching him all “niggers” really want is to rape white women?
I doubt he’d throw on a sheet, grab a horse and head out in search of a white maiden to save, but there had to be seeds planted that day.
Unfortunately The Review didn’t follow up on the March 13, 1918, showing. The only mention of the movie was the half-page ad, and the editorial a few days before the event.
Which might be a good sign.
A year after the release of “Birth Of A Nation”, and two years before “Birth” played in Vankleek Hill, Griffith released “Intolerance” (1916), a film considered to be his masterpiece. The movie looked at four eras of racism and intolerance over a 2500 year span. It’s considered by most film critics to be Griffith’s way of apologizing for “Birth Of A Nation”, Griffith even used most of the same main actors.
“Intolerance” has a RottenTomatoes.com ranking of 95%.