The Three to See: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and 12 Years Slave
As I wade into where angels fear to tread, I want to make it clear that I am stepping outside the current social discussion on race, and am planting my feet firmly into the history of film. There are many American films dealing with race that make for fascinating and insightful discussion. From Black Like Me to 13th to A Patch of Blue to Selma to Imitation of Life to Cabin in the Sky and Just Mercy, there are so many films coming at racial issues from all different angles that can be dissected, considered, and criticized. Some can even be enjoyed.
But as a student of American film, I’ve been asked about how to delve into the issue of race as seen through this country’s films. One of many ways to look at race and racism in American films is to go back to “a” beginning, hit “Hollywood’s Great Year,” and then move close to the present. All three films listed are, or would have been, Best Picture Winners. Of course, the Oscars weren’t handed out until well over a decade after the first film, The Birth of a Nation, was released. But that film would likely have been an Oscar winner, albeit a controversial one (Can you say Green Book?) OK, perhaps The Cheat might have snagged the prize, but who knows? And that was perhaps even more controversial at the time. In any event, The Birth of a Nation is the most significant and ground-breaking film of its time.
So for a quick trip through American film and race, I recommend viewing these three—and all in context.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
“Father of Film” D.W. Griffith’s most financially successful and artistically trailblazing film. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this film to cinema. After years of directing shorts, Griffith created a panoramic spectacle with epic battle scenes, touching family moments, and a variety of cinematic techniques that had never been used so much and so well: irises, pans, color tinting, and rapid editing that increased suspense and preceded Soviet montage by nearly a decade. The acting, too, was more sophisticated than earlier American films, and legendary Lillian Gish became a star whose career ultimately spanned 75 years (1912 to 1987). Griffith put American film on the map as no one else had, and the film became a model of epic filmmaking. It made more money than any film until Gone with the Wind, and it played in the American South until sound came in in 1927.
When introducing it to my students, I usually refer to it as “a breathtakingly racist masterpiece.” Its original title was The Clansman, (a title considered too tame at the time!) and it celebrated the “need” for the Ku Klux Klan to be formed. If you want to be offended rather than positioning yourself to learn, there are multiple reasons to be offended. There are more racist tropes than can be counted. White actors in blackface play many of the black characters. Black characters are shiftless, criminal, and/or lascivious. And on and on.
Some film professors have dropped the film from their studies of American film. I think that’s a mistake and I consider the film an essential for the serious student. Certainly as a film of influence, the film needs to be seen and appreciated. If you’re familiar with American cinema from say, 1905 to 1914, this film shows an astounding technical advance. But more important is to “never forget,” in this case to never forget that just a little over a century ago, the biggest blockbuster of the times was deeply racist—and not just with an action here or there or the occasional character. It’s racist through and through. It’s very uncomfortable to watch, and should always be. (The tension between artistic appreciation and social revulsion is well documented in this article: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-worst-thing-about-birth-of-a-nation-is-how-good-it-is)
Closely connected to the study of the film itself is the reaction around it. President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” though it is likely he said only the first half of that sentence. The NAACP protested against it, as did other groups, ministers, and reformers. Several cities banned its showing altogether.
A fascinating fact, worthy of study today as much as a century ago, is that director Griffith didn’t think of it that way. In fact, he was so appalled by the reaction to the film that he next made Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (usually known as simply Intolerance) in response to what he thought was an intolerant response to his work. Birth’s star, Lillian Gish, also proclaimed throughout her long life that it wasn’t racist, either. Griffith was the son of a Confederate general, and a classic Southern Victorian Gentleman. Ironically, anyone who saw his 1919 Broken Blossoms and nothing else may have thought of him as a Romantic progressive. His films are generally anti-war as well. To say he was a study in contrasts just begins to crack the surface to understanding this man and others like him. To understand that someone can carry such seemingly contradictory positions, and whose positions may show change over time, is the beginning of understanding how to engage and dialogue.
The Birth of a Nation should always be seen by serious film students, especially those that want to understand film history. It should also be seen by those interested in the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. We know 1865 as the end of the Civil War. We know the mid-1960s as the time of significant civil rights legislation. Right in the middle stands a cinematic masterpiece that, for better or worse, laid down a model for great filmmaking and an approach to the cinematic epic, and that artistically expresses sentiments that are still tearing this country apart. We can’t let current cancel culture rob us of the opportunity to learn.
Note: If you’re planning to see the film, see the longest version available. There is a 3-plus- hour version available on YouTube which I would highly recommend. Shorter versions lack the flow and rhythms of the longer versions.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
This classic film has made headlines lately because of HBO Max’s decision to pull the picture from their streaming lineup, and then to reinstate it with an introduction by TCM’s Jacqueline Stewart. It’s sad that the film has to have a context placed upon it before viewing. The artist in me (and the historian) is hesitant about narrowing a viewer’s experience of a film before they have a chance to see it. Yet being a college professor for over two decades, I’ve seen an increasing lack of historical awareness since I began teaching. Students not only know fewer facts, but also increasingly lack an understanding of how to look at things in their historical context, a loss for my class but a tragedy for society.
Gone with the Wind is still the most financially successful film of all time (accounting for inflation). It was the first film to win eight competitive Oscars and two additional ones, a haul that wasn’t duplicated until 1958’s Gigi. It’s also considered the best studio film of Hollywood’s “greatest year,” a year that included The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair, Ninotchka, The Women, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, and Dodge City, among many others. While some critics look down on it because it was created during the studio era, it’s a surprisingly deft film, telling a huge story with many players and incidents with economy and grandeur at the same time. Yes, it’s nearly four hours long, but considering the size and breadth of the book, it does a masterful job of keeping its focus and energy. It’s a great model of how to adapt literature into film. Plus it’s gorgeous to look at (thank you, William Cameron Menzies).
Lastly, its performances are great—Oscars to Hollywood newcomer Vivien Leigh, and the first Oscar to a Black performer, Hattie McDaniel. In spite of the demeaning way McDaniel was treated, even at the ceremony itself, it is a small step forward that she won the award over Olivia De Havilland’s Melanie. Whether this was a genuine gesture of appreciation for McDaniel’s good work, or the 1939 version of virtue signaling (of which Hollywood is the uncontested master), it was a first, and a deserved one. And her response to criticism for being in a film that contained so much racism is worthy of at least some discussion: “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.”
And yet….and yet…. Its depiction of the Antebellum South is so romantic it can make a viewer forget that this “wonderful world” is not just gone with the wind, but was built on the back of slaves that are presented as happy, healthy, and just glad to work for the massa. There are probably more evil Whites than Blacks in the film, but it’s the happy devoted slaves that ultimately undermine the film, though Butterfly McQueen’s interpretation of Prissy is more cringe-worthy.
If The Birth of a Nation reflects much of America in 1915, Gone with the Wind reflects both America and Hollywood of the late 1930’s. (Most saw the film during its wide release in early 1940). GWTW is not as blatant in its racism as Birth (being made nearly 25 years later), but the sophistication of its filmmaking and its creation of a believable world conceal a multitude of racist sins. Being more “of a piece” than Birth, it’s a bit harder to pick apart the racist bits and isolate them (with the painful example of Prissy). Conversations between slave owner and slave are generally polite, and Reconstructionists come under the film’s greatest judgment. But this is exactly why this film needs to be seen and studied, as a well-made film that has embedded its racist elements so deeply into the fabric of the film that it’s challenging to locate and expose all of them. And the film is often so enjoyable as an entertainment (with great music by Max Steiner) that one can be hesitant to reach in and pull out those racist strands, lest the whole film come apart. All these perspectives are worthy of examining. Heaven help us if we wind up censoring our pasts, particularly the more unpleasant aspects of them. History is there to learn from, not to reject with ham-fisted dismissals of art.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This is the last of the trio, and one that is also well directed and acted. It clearly shows slavery as evil, and invites the viewer into its anger and frustrations without becoming a polemic. There are several scenes that are difficult to watch. (I love showing one to my film class and watching them squirm—a healthy response.) As much as Gone with the Wind pushes issues of race and slavery down below its surface, 12 Years a Slave (spoiler alert, but hey, read the title again) is a true story about a Northern free Black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the attendant issues are right there on the surface.
Technically, the film is excellent. The cinematography is often stunning (more on that later), the Oscar-winning screenplay is solid, and the acting is exceptional. Lead Chiwetel Ejiofor found the role of a lifetime, and his talent and natural dignity add greatly to the film. Film newcomer Lupito Nyong’o won an Oscar for her intelligent and emotional performance, one you’ll never forget. Sarah Paulson is also near-perfect as a woman you love to hate.
There are also two supporting male performances that are often overlooked, though one was nominated for several awards at the time. Michael Fassbender plays a conflicted slaveowner who can’t reconcile his deeply held racial prejudice and belief in slavery (and its varying levels of power) with his lust for Nyong’o’s character. He’s a man cracking under the contradictions. Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, also very strong, plays a man with his own contradictions. He’s trying to be a good and moral man in the context of the slave-owning South, and it’s an artistic joy to watch him struggle with the implications of these various forces. Again, both are worthy of deeper examination as characters reflecting the kind of real people that are both perpetrators and to some degree, victims of the system of slavery.
There have been several naysayers, of course, and they have their reasons for what I would still consider nitpicking. One is that the images are so often so beautiful that they tend to distract from the horrors of what is being shown. This is more of an individual response to art, and some might argue that the tension between the two elements makes a stronger statement. In any event, the film is an enjoyable experience from an artistic point of view, and those that want more realism or more emphatic denunciations from their films that address controversial social issues can reasonably be disappointed (though I would argue that the story, direction, and acting convey a strong enough message).
Lastly, there is the issue of the white savior. I understand how frustrating that can be for a viewer who is tired of seeing the big strong White man come to the defense of the non-White characters. But the film has two big reasons why this doesn’t really apply. Yes, the person who ultimately frees our main character, Solomon Northup, is White. But he is a minor character, and the issue of self-service isn’t present with him. I’m sure Northup didn’t care about the color of the person who brought him back to his family. Also, this is a true story, and the man was White. There is enough playing around with history in film lately (see Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which I liked, and Netflix’s Hollywood, the less we comment on the better). We don’t need to reconstruct our history to adjust it to our current preferences; doing so robs us of a great opportunity to learn, as well as setting a fearful precedent.
These three films are important, for cinematic as well as social reasons. They shouldn’t be censored in any way, but should be viewed, reacted to, thought about, and discussed. There are many other films addressing these issues, of course, but IMHO these are the three to see for an overview of where America has been and where it is now, and how art has intersected with ideology over the same period.