The Birth of a Nation. Film critics seem to follow a predictable pattern when dealing with this film. Yes, they cry, it’s a racist film made from a racist novel, as if to absolve themselves from their love of the film, seeming to say now that we have that out of the way we can be justified in talking about how great this movie is. Who else does that? If the lyrics to Handel’s "Messiah" were a racist diatribe would we still be talking about how great the music is, you know, apart from those pesky lyrics? I doubt it. And if that’s the case with music, why not with film? One answer to that question can be found in a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker. A film critic sits in a theater thinking to himself as he watches a film on the screen: “The acting, the direction, the photography, and the script are all beneath contempt, but the cutting has a certain inexplicable yeastiness.” There’s not just a willingness to allow, but the expectation that a film critic can simply throw off what he doesn’t like about a film and praise what he does despite the holistic meaning and overt message of the film, a practice that in real life doesn’t work.
There’s a beautiful scene in the film The Savages that demonstrates this very phenomenon. After the two grown children in the film (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) move their father (Philip Bosco) to a nursing home, they sit with him one night as he picks out his favorite film for the residents and guests to watch. It’s The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Toward the end of the film, before his climactic performance, the black members of the audience are made visibly uncomfortable by Jolson donning blackface in his dressing room. And Linney and Hoffman are equally uncomfortable as their father, blissfully ignorant, lost in the glow of his own reminiscences and associations the film has for him, foists this racism on others in the name of entertainment. Can a claim of artistic significance really trump the overt racism of a film? I don’t think it should. And yet I’m guilty of the same thing myself, though I hope it’s in a way that makes my position clear. Whenever I feel forced to make the caveat “if you can overlook the racism in this film,” I always follow it with, “and I’m not even suggesting that you should.” If someone wants to denounce the artistry in a film because of the obvious negative message of the piece, I’m the last one who would try to talk him out of it.
What makes this kind of criticism so troubling is that there’s clearly a double standard. You don’t hear modern critics raving about the comedic antics of Harry Reems in Deep Throat, because that’s just not done. After all, it’s only a porno film. But what’s the difference between saying that and saying, after all it’s just a racist polemic disguised as an historical drama? I would argue that there is none. Granted, when mainstream pornography like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones first appeared in the seventies, there were critics who tried to grapple with the artistic merits of what was little more than a peep show--to use its derogatory meaning. But no modern critic will go near films like this today. And yet Deep Throat was an independent feature film, one that was highly influential at the time, and one that has a place on IMDb where films like Beaverly Hills Cop and Sex Trek are denied that recognition. While it might seem crass to equate a “genius” like D.W. Griffith with a purveyor of pornography the real question we need to ask ourselves is why. What makes the denigration of a race any less insidious than the objectification of women?
The problem for me is the designation of “genius” in the first place, as if that gives an artist license to do anything, however badly, and by virtue of the that fact it falls beneath the protective umbrella of that genius it is somehow transmuted into something good. Terrence Malick is the director that comes to mind, but whether you’re talking about “Piss Christ” or free jazz, I don’t think that’s enough. A work of art should be able to stand on its own, and be objectively judged apart from its creator. Instead of a genius it would be better to call Griffith a pioneer. And like so many pioneers, just because they were the ones who first created something doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best at it. Not only do I not think that The Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest films in cinematic history, I don’t even think it’s the best film of 1915. Even with my limited knowledge of silent era films that distinction would go to Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration. I find the visual style in Walsh’s film much more artistically satisfying, especially his moving camera work. By contrast, Griffith’s camera work seems positively dated.
One trend that I have noticed lately on best film lists is authors opting instead for Griffith’s Intolerance, an obviously much more politically correct film than The Birth of a Nation. In some ways, though, this is a copout because it sidesteps having to deal with the earlier film by completely avoiding it. But this is still a giant leap forward compared to older criticism in which not only was Griffith not called to task for his racism, but was actually praised for it. Michael R. Pitts, in his book Hollywood and American History, is typical of this kind of misguided reading of the film. “Griffith was obviously not afraid of controversy and the theme of racial mixing and inter-marriage underlie much of the plotline of the film . . . That Griffith chose not to subdue this topic is admirable.” He then goes on to patronize his readers by claiming that “Griffith did not consider himself a racist and, in fact, he had a great love for the Negro people” (64). But the most damning comment about the filmmaker again comes in the form of praise, “Griffith believed in the conception of paternalism. This notion simply meant that the Negro people as a whole were not capable of totally looking after themselves and needed to be guided by whites. Although this is undoubtedly a subliminally racist notion those who practiced it did so with no overt hostility toward blacks” (65).
In the end, I’m not sure it really matters whether or not Griffith himself was racist. His film clearly is, so if he couldn’t see it what does that say about him? I don’t necessarily believe that Griffith was attempting any "overt hostility toward blacks," but like the U.S. President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, he did believed in the Southern gentleman’s agreement that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. What else could lead a man to spend so much time and expense producing a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan? Bob Dylan was once quoted as saying, “The biggest criminals of all are the people who see wrong, know that it’s wrong, and turn away from it with no regard for the suffering taking place.” I’ll leave the decision as to whether or not Griffith was a criminal to Mr. Dylan, but there’s no denying that Griffith’s film perpetuated those beliefs at a time when lynching of blacks was causing enormous suffering among that population, especially in the South. So I think it’s time to stop venerating that particular piece of “art” and see it for what it is. There are plenty of other Griffith films that display his considerable talents without having to rationalize its existence with yet another, “Yes it’s racist, but . . .”