Friday, February 8, 2013

More D.W. Griffith

Yesterday I did a post on Richard Brody's "review" of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.  When I wrote that post I did not know that today marks the 98th anniversary of the day that the film premiered in Los Angeles.  Jim Cullen, author of the recent Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, reflects on this "black mark" in U.S. cultural history and compares it with Spielberg's Lincoln.  Here is a taste:

But Birth of a Nation was a source of instant controversy. Griffith may have thought he was simply projecting common sense, but a broad national audience, some of which had lived through the Civil War, did not necessarily agree. The film’s release also coincided with the beginnings of African American political mobilization. As Melvyn Stokes shows in his elegant 2009 book D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film’s promoters and its critics alike found the controversy surrounding it curiously symbiotic, as moviegoers flocked to see what the fuss was about and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the film’s notoriety to build its membership ranks. 

Birth of a Nation never escaped from the original shadows that clouded its reception. Later films like Gone with the Wind (1939), which shared much of its political outlook, nevertheless went to great lengths to sidestep controversy. (The Klan is only alluded to as “a political meeting” rather than depicted the way it was in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel.) Today Birth is largely an academic curio, typically viewed in settings where its racism looms over any aesthetic or other assessment.

In a number of respects, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a repudiation of Griffith. In Birth, Lincoln is a martyr whose gentle approach to his adversaries is tragically severed with his death. But in Lincoln he’s the determined champion of emancipation, willing to prosecute the war fully until freedom is secure. The Stevens character of Lincoln, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is not quite the hero. But his radical abolitionism is at least respected, and the very thing that tarred him in Birth — having a secret black mistress — here becomes a badge of honor. Rarely do the rhythms of history oscillate so sharply. Griffith would no doubt be bemused. But he could take such satisfaction in the way his work has reverberated across time.

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