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I’ve just finished watching a classic movie for the first time: D W Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation (1916). Wow.

It was shown on Irish television starting at noon today, with no fanfare of any kind. All I knew about it was its status as a classic, at least technically. I was not aware of the claims of racism made against it, even on its release, until I looked it up in my encyclopaedia prior to watching it.

Even allowing for the times, it’s still pretty damning to watch. After covering the US Civil War, it focuses primarily on the Reconstruction period, when the process of bringing the Southern states back into the United States sparked friction on many fronts. Griffith spins a tale of “negroes” taking over towns, led by a “mulatto” named Lynch (!), and aided and abetted by a sympathetic politician, who only realises his folly when his own family is threatened. Not having had an American education, such as it is, I am not well-versed in the vocabulary of the period. I had to look up terms such as “carpetbagger”, which is still used now but originated in that period, to describe white Northerners who went to the South to do various kinds of business, mostly exploitative. During the film’s climax, who rides to the rescue of the town (and Lillian Gish)? The Ku Klux Klan!

Griffith was reportedly surprised at the hostile critical reception received by Birth Of A Nation, and next made a sprawling epic called Intolerance (1917), which attacked both racial and cultural intolerance. It didn’t do well at all in the USA (it was the Heaven’s Gate of its day), but became required watching in the Soviet film school taught by Lev Kuleshov, whose students included V I Pudovkin and the great Sergei Eisenstein.

Now taping: The Elephant Man. It will have to wait: I have work to do.

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Written by brian t

July 13, 2002 at 11:04 pm

Posted in america, history, movies

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