Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: race

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

About a year ago, I briefly discussed the first part of this two-part story from D.W. Griffith when he was working at Biograph. It’s worth going back and looking at that post, because the two movies are a continuation of the same story. Griffith always was interested in finding way to work in longer formats (even though, as I’ve said before, his greatest strength seems to have been in making shorts). In this case, he did it by making a “sequel” at the same time as he shot the first part, although the opening intertitle assures us that “each is a complete story in itself.” I suspect that note was added by Biograph to assure its distributors and exhibitors that they would not require anyone to rent two-reel movies at a time when movies were sold by-the-foot, rather than by-the-story. At any rate, it is likely that some audiences only saw half of the story.

 His Trust Fulfilled

The story is that of “an old faithful negro servant” (read: slave) of a Confederate soldier (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Last Drop of Water”), who takes on the role of protecting the widow and orphaned child after the father is killed in the Civil War. The main character, George, is played with understated dignity and humility by Wilfred Lucas, a white man in blackface, which will make it difficult at best for modern audiences to accept him. He saves the daughter (Gladys Egan again, from “In the Border States” and “The Adventures of Dollie”) from the burning house after a group of Union looters torches it, then running back in to rescue also the fallen hero’s sword, symbol of “his trust” and arguably a phallic symbol of his acceptance of white supremacy. He takes both back to his meager shack, and sleeps outside in the cold to preserve their honor. The mother (Claire McDowell, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old?” and “The New York Hat”) nevertheless dies from the pain of her loss, apparently shocked to the core by her circumstances. George gives his meager savings to a white lawyer who refuses to shake his hand in order to see to it that the child is brought up and schooled with her own kind. She grows into a somewhat bouncy Dorothy West (from “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Fugitive”), who attracts the hand of the lawyer’s young cousin from England. George, having fulfilled his life’s purpose – keeping the trust of his long-dead master – shuffles sadly off after the wedding and back to his quarters, where he holds the sword gently to his breast. In what may be a dream sequence, the lawyer appears and finally shakes George’s hand.

The screen's first "interracial" handshake?

The screen’s first “interracial” handshake?

In spite of the clearly racist content, I won’t deny that the story has some dramatic and emotional content that still works. The Civil War battle is less effective than what we see in “The House with Closed Shutters,” which may be attributable to a lower budget, but it’s also less central to the storyline. Lucas’s performance, which at first seems virulently stereotypical, takes on a more dignified cast as we see George age and face the trials of keeping his word. In a way, what Griffith is giving us here is the “positive case” for racism and Southern tradition – a world in which people knew their destiny on Earth and kept their honor by living up to their expectations. That this world is mythical makes it no less effective as a cinematic representation, although of course accepting it without criticism leads down the road that got us to “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Claire McDowell, Gladys Egan, Dorothy West, Verner Clarges, Harry Hyde

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it (along with “His Trust”) for free: here.

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.

Watermelon Eating Contest (1896)

Watermelon Contest

Of all the movies I’ve reviewed for this blog, this one may be the most difficult for modern viewers to accept. Even “The Birth of a Nation” has its defenders who claim it is a “classic” or “great” movie, but no one is likely to say that about the “Watermelon Eating Contest.” It plays right into racist stereotypes which make the watermelon a symbol for African American “inferiority” and simplicity, and it does so unapologetically. Charles Musser tells us in “The Emergence of Cinema” that even at the time, viewers in some areas found it “nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering,” although they were not apparently alarmed by its racism. Indeed, one suspects that these (presumably white) viewers reacted to it in part for the simple effrontery of depicting African Americans at all. I think it’s important to note, however, because the ways in which blacks have been portrayed on film holds a mirror up to the face of America’s racial politics. This is the earliest example I know of, and it sets a low bar for filmmakers to improve on in the coming century and beyond.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here (fair warning: you may find it offensive or upsetting).

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part IV

The Rise of the Second KKK

Ku_Klux_Klan_members_march_down_Pennsylvania_Avenue_in_Washington,_D.C._in_1928

One thing that is often mentioned, but rarely examined, in discussion of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” is the coincidence that it was released in the same year that an enterprising Southerner, William Joseph Simmons, re-established the organization of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. While it got off to a shaky start, this “second Klan” (often referred to by historians as “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s”), rose to become a powerful political lobby, able to muster thousands of hooded marchers for a demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1928. It is estimated that as many as five million Americans joined during the decade, although most of them were fairly short-term members. I would really like to see a proper historical study documenting the links between the new Klan and the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” but for now this essay (derived from secondary sources) will have to do.

The original Ku Klux Klan had been a resistance organization for white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. It consisted of loosely allied vigilante bands, who used terror against Northerners, Radical Republicans, freed African Americans and their Southern allies to re-establish an order of white supremacy and the control of traditional elites in the South. It was ultimately suppressed by order of the Federal Government, and this led to its abandonment by its most powerful supporters, who sought more above-ground, legal means to accomplish the same ends. Southern Democrats turned to two different means to accomplish this: the popularization of the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the South and the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws that were designed to keep African Americans in a position of separation and subjugation vis-à-vis whites. Since it was pretended that Jim Crow was based on “separate but equal” (it wasn’t), these laws had some success spreading to non-Confederate areas and even began to be introduced by Woodrow Wilson at the Federal Government level by the time of the early teens.

Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

Meanwhile, the “Lost Cause” had been successful in changing the narrative about the war. It wasn’t about slavery, but about a noble, if anachronistic, “way of life” that the South maintained while the North progressed into capitalism and industrialization. The South had only wanted to preserve its honorable and decent lifestyle when it was forced to secede. This is the narrative that Thomas Dixon’s book and play The Clansman repeated, and it was read and accepted widely by white people all over the country. Another believer was Simmons, who had been a failure at most of what he had put his hand to in life: medical student, minister, soldier, yet he had retained a sense of destiny in himself. Simmons was also a member of several fraternal organizations, and when he decided in 1915 to “revive” the KKK, this was the model he chose, as opposed to a secret terror group.

Nowadays, men who join fraternal societies like the Masons or the Oddfellows are increasingly rare and rather marginal figures. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these kinds of groups were dominant. Men associated, outside of their homes, with other men for professional and social reasons, usually under the auspices of an “Order” of some kind with ritual trappings, sometimes with costumes and secret signals. It’s been estimated that at the high point there were some 2000 separate lodge organizations in the USA, with a membership that may have extended to 40% of the population. In addition to networking and social activities, lodges organized charitable work and provided religious and secular educational events. While fraternal organizations were declining by the beginning of World War One, this tradition was still far stronger than it is today.

All which gives the Second Klan a rather different flavor than the First, and I think has led some historians to mis-read its nature. Writers at the time and soon afterward often confused the two Klans, and assumed that the membership of Simmons’s organization was poor, uneducated, Southern, and rural. Examination of membership rosters and other information challenged this idea, beginning in the 1960s. It turned out that many members were middle class, urban, and educated. The largest numerical membership was in Indiana and the highest per capita was in Oregon – definitely not the South. A new school of “Klan revisionists” arose who started taking this into account and doing regional studies of unlikely Klan strongholds like Buffalo, New York, El Paso, Texas, and Salt Lake City. They found that Klan concerns often lined up with Progressive issues like temperance and educational reform.

Ku_Klux_Klan_Virgina_1922_Parade

I personally think the revisionists wound up going a little too far in starting to see the Second Klan as “nice” people. They started to argue that white supremacy was only one of several interests of the organization, and that most of its methods were above-ground and legal. Well, it depends where you look. Nancy MacLean (who is sometimes called a “re-revisionsist”) studied the KKK in Georgia and found that they were engaged in lynching and terror operations after all. They just did it with the collusion of powerful middle class lawyers and judges and police officials who conveniently looked the other way. Illegal actions like cross burnings on other people’s property, public tarring and feathering, or vandalism were consistently a part of its activities even outside the South. At the high point of the Klan’s power, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, a law explicitly written to limit the number of “non-white” (including Southern and Eastern European) entrants into the country. This was a triumph for their racist position on immigration. And that “educational reform” the KKK was so good about supporting usually meant closing down Catholic schools, because Catholicism was an enemy of “democracy” as the Klan defined it.

But, getting back to Simmons and 1915: he had gathered a few friends to his new organization, but he waited until December to announce its formation in local papers. Specifically, he waited until “The Birth of a Nation” was scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters. According to several historians, the Klan consistently timed its recruitment drives to coincide with screenings of the movie. Nancy MacLean found that the KKK had a hard time getting up to speed in Athens, Georgia, until “a much-touted return engagement” of the movie in 1921. The Klan and its successor organizations continued using it as a recruiting device, right up to the video revolution of the 80s and 90s, according to Dick Lehr and Thomas Martinez. It may still be used, for all I know. Apart from that, Simmons adopted much of the imagery of the movie, without worrying over whether it was historically accurate. The original Klan had not used the burning cross as a symbol, that was an invention of Dixon in The Clansman, based on his idea of Scottish clans burning St. Andrews’ crosses. D.W. Griffith was the one who invented the symbol of a burning Latin cross, which remains a powerful symbol of hatred today.

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’m sure this was an unintended consequence, so far as D.W. Griffith was concerned. So far as I know, neither he nor Thomas Dixon condoned the new Klan or its use of their art to foster hate. I’m not trying to present a simple argument of causality here, either: blaming D.W. Griffith for lynchings in the South in the 1920s is equivalent to blaming violent video games for school shootings, and I don’t mean to go that route. What I do think is that modern film fans, critics, and historians have to make an effort to get the easy stuff right. A movie that propagandizes for the KKK is not a “neutral” work of art that can be removed from its place in history. It was wildly popular for some of the same reasons that the Second Klan was popular. That isn’t pretty, but it is our past, and the more “important” we judge “The Birth of a Nation” to be in film history, the more we need to confront what that importance says about all the movies that followed it. Film historians and classic film fans often tend to romanticize their subject matter, but it’s bound up in all the same problems we see in society as a whole. That’s what looking at the past through the lens of its visual representation means to me.

I don’t usually give sources for my posts, but since this was one of the most heavily researched ones I’ve done, here are the references:

Greer, John Michael. Inside a Magical Lodge: Group Ritual in the Western Tradition. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1998.

Horowitz, David A, ed. Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Kirschenbaum, Robert. “Klan and Commonwealth: The Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, 1921-1928.” Master’s thesis, University of Kentucky, 2005.

Lay, Shawn. Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York and London: NYU Press, 1995.

_____, ed. The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Lehr, Dick. The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.

MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Martinez, Thomas & John Gunther. Brotherhood of Murder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Moore, Leonard. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1991.

Buffalo Dance (1894)

BuffaloDance1894

For the last movie of mydancesequence, I’m returning to the Kinetoscope period of Edison Studios, for a movie that was shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley.” Here, we have a group of Sioux men in ostensibly traditional dress, performing a dance in the cramped confines of the “Black Maria” studio, with drummers visible behind them on the stage. It is very similar to the previously-reviewed “Sioux Ghost Dance,” although in this case history has recorded the names of the performers: Hair Coat, Parts His Hair, and Last Horse. All of them were performers for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, so it’s possible that these authentic-sounding names were actually adopted for stage performances. In that sense, of course this is a movie that exploits Native Americans and the fascination of European Americans with them at the time, and these movies were among the first filmed examples of this, although it would soon become an industry in its own right.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 16 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation (1915) Part III

Personal_Journey_with_Martin_Scorsese_Through_American_Movies

Before I get into the main part of my discussion for this post, I want to talk about a newer movie I watched recently, called “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies.” This was a documentary Scorcese produced with the British Film Institute in the late 1990s. He mostly focuses on the movies he grew up with, so the period of the 1940s ad 50s is strongly represented, but not that many Century Films show up. He does talk a bit about the early years of cinema, however, and he does something very interesting when he does. Like a lot of twentieth century film historians, he waxes poetic about the significance and importance of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, and he uses a number of clips from the movie to demonstrate its technical achievements. However, he says nothing about its controversial content. That’s fairly standard, but I had to watch the segment twice or three times to realize just how far he (or the BFI editor) had gone to “whitewash” the film. Not only are there no close-ups of Klansmen in sheets, nor do we see the lustful “Gus” chasing Mae Marsh off a cliff, but there are no images shown which give any insight into the racial content of the movie at all! No white men in blackface, no celebrations of harmonious slavery, nothing. We do get a glimpse of the Reconstruction-era Congress, with black men sitting at the Representatives desks, but it doesn’t hold long enough for us to see them drinking, taking off their shoes, eating fried chicken, etc. A person would come out of this documentary thinking that “The Birth of a Nation” was just another version of “Lincoln,” in that the longest sequence is the John Wilkes Booth assassination at the Ford theater. This is just one more example of how the racist nature of the movie is downplayed (or in this case suppressed) in order to play up the narrative of its originality and importance to film history, a narrative I find increasingly dubious, the more research I do.

 Birth of a Nation book

All that’s by way of a digression, what I really wanted to talk about this month is D.W. Griffith the man, who he was and how he came to make “The Birth of a Nation.” I recently read and reviewed the book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War. I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t really a work of film history, more of a dual biography and journalistic account of the clash between Griffith and Monroe Trotter, an African American journalist in Boston. But, in that sense, I learned a lot about Griffith, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky, a slave state which never joined the Confederacy, whose citizens were divided among Pro-Union and Pro-Confederate sympathizers. His father was Jacob “roaring Jake” Griffith, a somewhat intemperate adventurer who volunteered for the South at a somewhat advanced age (he had been a forty-niner, searching for gold in the California Gold Rush). He became a colonel and was retired with honors. After the war, he was given to drinking late into the night and regaling listeners with tales of his exploits, liberally mixing fact with fiction. Apparently these drunken rants were basically the first “theater” his son experienced, and young David Wark Griffith drank it all in as a way of connecting with his otherwise distant father.

 Seal_of_Kentucky_(Confederate_shadow_government)

Let’s step back a bit more and talk about Kentucky. It was a strategically vital state in the war. Lincoln went so far as to say that if Kentucky was lost, the war would be also. But it was a state where slavery was a big part of the economy and way of life. Kentucky was formally neutral at the outbreak of the war, but eventually requested Union protection, after bloody battles and Confederate guerilla activities had begun to threaten stability. White pro-Union Kentuckians presumably hoped that their loyalty to the Union would mean that they would be permitted to retain their lifestyle, and they felt betrayed by the Emancipation Proclamation. As the military situation shifted toward Union supremacy, Kentucky sympathies shifted toward the Confederacy, but at that point Union troops controlled most of the state. The military commander ordered reprisals of four men shot for every Union soldier killed by guerilla action. Men like Jake Griffith came home defeated, more or less able to tell their neighbors, “I told you so” as the Reconstruction took place throughout the South. A branch of the KKK opened in Kentucky to join in solidarity with the movement against Reconstruction, even though Kentucky was never formally a Reconstruction state, never having been in the Confederacy. In fact, Kentuckians had it comparably good in this period, the military occupation was lifted and their congress was able to reinstate the citizenship of former Confederate soldiers. But, a sense of bitterness remained and grew.

Confederate_Reunion_Parade_Richmond

So far as I know, Jake Griffith never joined the original Klan, and David quite probably lived his whole life without meeting anyone who had been involved in it. He was born in 1875, one year after the disbandment of the movement, and the stories he heard about the Reconstruction period in Kentucky were distorted by his father’s emotions, sympathies, and propensity for exaggeration. The story of the “lost cause” spread among the old South and began to find acceptance in the North as well. The dominant myth that the nation came to use for reconciliation was that the Civil War had been a great tragedy for the whole nation, and what both North and South had in common was their white heritage, whether with or without slavery. The legacy of emancipation became less important than preserving white supremacy in the reunified nation.

Back to young D.W. Griffith. His father died while he was ten years old, making it impossible for the boyhood adulation to be checked by adolescent conflicts. After his death, the family entered a period of difficulty, and had to move from its rural homestead to the “big city” of Louisville, where Griffith stood out as a country bumpkin. He had all the usual problems adjusting to the pace of life there, but no doubt also associated it all with the multiculturalism and liberalism of modern society, as against the pastoral dream of his childhood. Meanwhile, he also discovered the theater, and finally knew what he wanted to do with his life. By his mid-teens, he started working in theaters, taking any job he could get, all the while trying to start a career either as a writer or an actor.

 GriffithDW

He never found great success at either, although he made a living, sometimes precariously, working for touring shows as an extra or a stage hand, moving about the country freely and never settling for long in one place. He was over thirty when he finally signed to Biograph Studios as an actor, finally starting him on the path that would lead to his greatest successes. According to Billy Bitzer, his future cameraman, Griffith was a terrible actor, given to waving his arms around dramatically and hamming in every scene. Bitzer could not believe that such a performer had much potential as an director, but in fact Griffith had an excellent eye and ability to get what he wanted – so long as he didn’t have to do it himself. He picked talented actors and gave them the right amount of direction. He would leave the confident, experienced actors alone, giving them just simple directions as the camera rolled, while he would rehearse and give attention to those who needed the guidance.

 Billy_Bitzer_D_W_Griffith_1920

The story of Griffith’s film work has been told many times, and I don’t want to extend this post unnecessarily, but all the elements giving rise to “The Birth of a Nation” were in place before he even started. He believed in his father’s distorted Kentucky-centric view of the Civil War. He had been raised in a culture that celebrated white supremacy, and nothing in his adult experience had challenged this. He had an epic vision of recent history before his birth, and he honed the talents and skills to create a vision he could share with others of his time and place. He was a skillful showman, and had learned from his father how to hold an audience and how to exaggerate, something he did in nearly every interview and press release he ever gave. And Griffith was connected to the dominant cultural perceptions of his time – “The Birth of a Nation” was a powerful experience for so many because Griffith, and his white audiences, really did believe what he had to say about Reconstruction and the KKK.

For the earlier posts in this essay series, see links below:

In Part One, I discussed the racist content of “Birth of a Nation.”

In Part Two, I talked about its technical accomplishments.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part II

Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

So, having completely bashed the picture for its racist content last time out, I’m stuck with a big question: If it’s so terrible, why is it so important? At the risk of creating an essay that’s guilty of the very problems I identified then, I need to talk about two things: technical advances and ballyhoo. To start with the first, let’s be clear: “The Birth of a Nation” was not, as has occasionally been claimed, the first feature film. It was not the first use of tracking shots, pans, or close ups. It was not the first film to edit within scenes or even the most advanced example of editing or lighting or any technique that had ever been used before. However, it was one of the first movies to combine all of this into an emotionally affecting narrative. For many viewers, it may have been their first experience seeing the above techniques used so well or so frequently.

And the second half of the equation partly explains this. D.W. Griffith had poured his life into making this movie (more about him as a person in future installments) had called in every favor he could and was in serious debt. He needed the movie to succeed, and he used every tactic of media exploitation he could to promote it. People heard about the movie long before they saw it. The stage was set for them, the thrills predicted. Moreover, they went in primed for a “new” experience. While “the movies” were seen in the United States (less so in Europe) as being “common” entertainment for poor people and immigrants, Griffith promoted his “photo-play” as an uplifting experience for the middle classes. Legitimate theaters (as opposed to nickelodeons) were rented for premieres in various cities, and ticket prices were as much as $2.00 (as opposed to five cents), making this an exclusive experience but also setting up an expectation that one was really going to “see something.” Orchestras were hired to play the original score. Ushers wore Civil War uniforms. People went wild, cheering and applauding. Of course, the minority of African Americans who saw the movie came away with a different feeling, but for the dominant white majority, this quickly became part of their personal narratives – one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, and an example of how motion pictures could be more than a minor diversion. The result is that more people, and certainly more influential people, saw the movie and were blown away by it.

Side note/tangent: I find that New York City’s Film Forum will be screening the movie tomorrow for its centenary. Wisely, they have invited an African American author to introduce it. I wonder whether it still may draw a few protestors.

Better Man (1912)

Better_Man

Once again, we have an interesting exploration of ethnic and gender tropes in an early Western, this time from Vitagraph who were seen as the major competition for Biograph in turning out drama at the time. Here, a Mexican horse thief (played by Robert Thornby, who went on to direct “The Deadlier Sex” and “Bianca”) proves to be “the better man” than a white husband and father who gambles away his pay at a bar while his young child lies sick at home. The thief enters the home looking for food, but the wife implored him to find a doctor, and, his heart moved by the icon of Maria on the wall, the wanted Latino criminal agrees, though it exposes him to possible capture. The father attempts to apprehend him, is bested in a fair fight, and tries again to get the drop on the Mexican while the doctor ministers to the child, resulting in a thorough shaming by his own wife. Although it may seem a surprising turn of events, the story is in line with other progressive “message pictures” of the day which blamed much of the world’s misery on unmanly men for failing to live up to their gender role as providers and protectors of women and children.

Director: Rollin S. Sturges

Cast: Anne Schaefer, Robert Thornby

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to locate this movie online. If you know where it can be seen for free, please link to it in the comments.

Tourists (1912)

 TheTourists

This short “farce comedy” is interesting for a number of reasons. Although its depiction of Native Americans is likely to make modern audiences uncomfortable, it does display an aspect of Pueblo culture that is largely forgotten today. Having had their land stolen and their way of life destroyed, many Pueblos turned to the tourist industry to make a living, working in places like the “Harvey House” in Albuquerque and selling hand-crafted blankets and other items to white people on vacation. That is the setting for Mack Sennett, then employed at Biograph Studios, to make this vehicle for the teenaged Mabel Normand, later one of his big stars at Keystone. Mabel plays a ditzy and somewhat sexually transgressive young woman who misses her train and takes a up a flirtation with the local Pueblo chief. This angers her male companion, but also the local Pueblo women, who initiate a classic Sennett chase-sequence that ends with the white folks boarding the next train and leaving empty-handed. The whole story is interspersed with images of the Pueblo people doing their schtick for the camera, and several are used as extras, although the major roles went to Biograph players in dark-face. The enraged Pueblo women referred to in the intertitles as “suffragettes,” which is simply a bad joke at the expense of early-twentieth century feminism.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mabel Normand, Charles West, Frank Evans, Kate Toncray

Run Time: 6 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Birth of a Nation (1915), Part I

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

Up to now, my reviews have been quite short. This is not a mistake: I want to cover as many films of each year as I can, and I want to make my discussions accessible. I also see them as potential jumping-off points for more detailed discussions in the comments. For this year, however, I’m making an exception. The legacy of the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” by D.W. Griffith is too much to handle in a single post of a few hundred words, so I’m giving myself all year to unpack it. This represents its powerful impact on film history, but no less its controversial and problematic content.

Let’s start with that. This movie is a blatant glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era South and a continuation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War which furthered the cause of white supremacy by framing the South as the noble victim of Northern industrial and technological advancement. The movie was so powerful in delivering this message that it facilitated the rebirth of a new KKK in America, which became a powerful political force throughout the country by the early 1920s and was still active in fighting the Civil Rights movement a generation later. As late as 1988, former klansman Thomas Martinez claimed that KKK-inspired organizations would use the silent movie as a recruitment device, more than 60 years after the introduction of sound film. In short, the movie is racist, and at least part of its legacy is racism. That’s all pretty obvious, but it has been known to get lost in discussions about how important, groundbreaking, original, etc. the film was. Perhaps more importantly, many people at the time, including D.W. Griffith himself, actually didn’t believe that it espoused race hatred. In short, it makes the movie a case study in the ways that a society glosses its own prejudices, until enough things change to make it obvious. If some people in 1915 couldn’t see the racism in “The Birth of a Nation,” what are we missing in 2015?

See for yourself: here.