Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Birth of a Nation (1915) dir D.W. Griffith - Observations of a modern audience's response.

I just got home from finishing the second part of Griffith's epic Birth of a Nation in my History of Cinema class.  I had seen the bulk of the film before this class and was familiar with its themes and context as not only a film but a historical document.

If you are unfamiliar with the story here is a plot summary.  The most famous aspects of Birth of a Nation are its controversial (and blatant) racism and glorification of the KKK (portrayed as Teutonic knights not as paragons of scum and villainy).  However on a cinematographic level, Griffith and his cinematographer Bitzer expanded - and in some cases created - the language and technique of film that live on today.  As a historical document, Birth of a Nation and the responses the film caused, and continues to cause, in audiences; a resurgence of the KKK, riots outside cinemas, a Supreme Court case (Mutual Corporation v Ohio 1919) that dealt with whether or not film was protected by the First Amendment, the amount of money the film made and the effects that money had on the building of Hollywood - are all fascinating elements to me.  Sadly though, hearing the comments and reactions of my classmates today, they were not as impressed nor as interested.

A young woman who sits next to me asked, rather loudly during the film, "Why do we have to watch this Klan shit?" Another person commented, "Bunch of racist bullshit."  Another, "What does this have to do with the history of movies?"  Other people grumbled similar grumbles.  One student got up and walked out before the movie ended.  During one pivotal scene near the end I thought I heard, "Fuck those white racists." to which I wanted to respond, "Why do they have to be 'white' racists?"  Additionally I heard one guy chortle derisively during the House of Representatives scene when one of the black delegates is gesticulating with a chicken leg in his hand.

On the walk home I thought, "How can a film nearly one hundred years old still have such an effect on people and not be considered important or relevant to the study of not only cinema but American history and culture?"  While I was sitting in class I was wondering, "How would Birth of a Nation be received by audiences if it was a science fiction film?  Same narrative, set pieces, and themes?"

I have to admit that this post does not have a specific academic direction and for that I apologize.  If any of you fine folks have opinions or information to share please do.  Once I have thought about and discussed the topic more I will post my results.

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