2015 is the one-hundred-year anniversary of two monumental events in the history of cinema. The fact you’re not hearing about them is two-fold: one is especially technical and most folks aren’t interested, and the other is being tragically choked out by political correctness.
The first is the centennial of Technicolor. I was blessed to see the touring exhibit, In Glorious Technicolor, at the George Eastman House in Rochester before it went to New York City and Vienna. As a complete film nerd, I was in cinema heaven watching the various film clips, seeing the cameras, reading the history of the technology and learning about the other landmark Technicolor masterpieces beyond the usual trilogy of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain.
I was also able to see one of the most beautifully photographed films in history, The Red Shoes, in glorious 35mm Technicolor in the accompanying film screenings. For fans of film and/or the technology, the exhibit was exhilarating. But for most folks, even those who love film, the whole thing might come off as a little technical and a big geeky.
The more important centenary was the 100-year anniversary of the release of the first great American cinematic masterwork, Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. A story of the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the film is a seminal work of film, and particularly American film. Griffith took what he’d learned in the various shorts he’d created in the previous half-dozen years (the filming was done in 1914), and essentially created modern film language in the one film. I could go on and on about the brilliance of the film, and how important it is in the history of the art form. Suffice it to say that in many ways, this film is the beginning of modern cinema, albeit in its silent form.
The reason we’re not hearing about this, of course, is because Birth of a Nation is not just a masterpiece, but a breathtakingly racist masterpiece. Though Griffith himself was not a mean or vindictive filmmaker (actually, quite the opposite), he, to use modern parlance, didn’t self-identify as a racist. This of course makes the film all the more fascinating and all the more a reflection of the man and of the time of the film’s creation. The entire situation is rife with possibilities of discussion and study.
The first film class I taught was History of American Film, and Birth of a Nation was a part of it. I no longer teach that specific class, and I’ve heard since teaching it that many similar classes around the country have dropped the film. Were I to go back to teaching that subject, I would reinstate the film posthaste. It needs to continue to be seen, and it needs to be studied.
Of course it’s a difficult film! Of course it presents scenarios and images that are repugnant and more than uncomfortable! But for two reasons, we need to keep it front and center in our studies of American film.
For one, it’s simply brilliant, and practically a miracle of filmmaking. Watching earlier works by various American directors sets Birth of a Nation in a context that needs to be understood to appreciate the film, and that demonstrates what a wonder it is technically. Any modern filmmaker can see that this film is a cinematic blossoming of a great variety of developments in cinematography, acting, camera movement, editing and more. To pull the film from view and from study creates a huge hole in our understanding of how film language evolved.
The second reason it needs to be studied is that we need to keep front and center the history of American and race. Certainly the study of race in American film must include this work. But to understand America itself, there are some things that simply can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Our nation’s history with slavery, racism, and Jim Crow is part of who we’ve been, and still are to a great extent. Dropping the film from study isn’t going to make us a better people, only a more ignorant one.
It’s regrettable from a film history point of view that our first great masterwork is shot through with racial bigotry. But the fact remains that one of the great works of American film, and perhaps still the most important historically, contains a great deal of offensive racism. That’s part of who we were, and even today, art can also be offensive. Birth of a Nation is a work of art, and it’s also objectionable. To essentially ignore its 100th anniversary indicates a certain inability or lack of desire to wrestle with the issues of the film, and the issues of the undeniable fact of the film’s importance.
We can appreciate the film’s strengths while still understanding its weaknesses. To throw out the baby with the bathwater is essentially cowardly, and it damages a true understanding of film history in general and American film in particular. If you have the time and inclination, see Birth of a Nation and respond to it. (If you do, see the longest version you can find; believe it or not, the longest versions flow more easily than the shorter, choppy ones.)