Sunday, February 8, 2015

Civil War Sunday - Too Racist to Enjoy?

The United States Civil War ended (officially) in April/May, 1865, 150 years ago this year.  But, in some ways, it has never ended.

It certainly had not ended on February 8, 1915, when the silent movie The Birth of a Nation was released. The movie is still controversial today, 100 years later.  

It is rarely publicly screened in its entirety. Why?

It was a groundbreaking movie in many ways.

In an era where movies normally didn't run more than 20 minutes, this was the first movie "blockbuster" - at 3 hours and 10 minutes.

I am not a film expert, but it pioneered many film techniques still used today, including techniques used for battle scenes.

It was the first movie ever screened at our President's residence, the White House.

It was the highest grossing movie ever until Gone with the Wind (another Civil War movie, and a movie celebrating its 75th anniversary this year - it was released in January, 1940).

Theaters charged admission of up to $2 - or, $47, in 2015 dollars.

It has been referred to, in some way, in many movies, including Forrest Gump.

So you would think we should all go out and see this movie.  And perhaps we all should, but not just for those reasons.

When seeking to understand history, we must explore the influence of books and other media in shaping our perceptions.  Think of the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  This book, published in 1852, horrified many with its depiction of American slavery.  It changed the world for the better.  It is still in print today.


The Birth of a Nation did just the opposite.  It was one of the most racist movies of all time.  I have only seen clips, but they were enough to turn my 2015-era stomach.  Black legislators in South Carolina eating fried chicken and taking their shoes off as they laugh and pass legislation demeaning to white people. (Footnote, major black characters were portrayed by whites in blackface.) White women endangered by former slaves, and saved by the Ku Klux Klan.  No surprise; it was used as a recruitment tool for racist organizations.

Many people suffered and died, indirectly, because of this movie.

It is rarely screened, but it can be seen, in its entirety, on You Tube.  It is in the public domain.

So what should happen to a movie like this?  Should it be censored, hidden away and never seen again?  What do you think?

I do not think so.  Evil must be understood, and faced head on.  As troubling a movie as this is, I believe it does need to be seen, and considered in the context of 1915.

In my high school history class, we screened portions of the Nazi classic propaganda film  Triumph of the Will.  Why not this movie?

Here, in 2015, we should not be too proud.  We can see the progress we have made since 1915, but we still have a long way to go.

We must finally end our Civil War.

Footnote:  I encourage thoughtful comments, even if they disagree with me.  But, if I end up getting any hateful or off topic comments as a result of this post - well, they would have just proved my point.  Those WILL be deleted.)

14 comments:

  1. Wow, that sounds like quite a controversial movie, I've actually never heard of it until today.

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    1. Not too many people watch silent movies anymore. But even in its day, this was a controversial movie, and the memory remains for many.

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  2. WOW! What an amazing piece of history. No, I did not watch the entire 3+ hours, but enough to get a feel for it - the style and the content. The impact of slavery and this period in US history lives on today and needs to be dealt with as painful as it may be. Problems are only resolved by talking and learning. Ignoring the problems won't make them go away. Thank you, Alana. HUGS <3

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Judy. You are right. We still have a lot of work to do in facing this legacy of our history.

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  3. I haven't seen it, but knew the history.

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    1. I learned a lot researching this. Glad you stopped by and commented.

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  4. I live in the South so someone is always flying the rebel flag. Talking to some people you would think the Civil War happened yesterday.

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    1. We still have a long journey, I think, before the war is truly over.

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  5. I've heard of it but never new it was so controversial. In my opinion it's a good thing to have controversial things. It get people thinking, asking question and starting a conversation on many social issues.
    At this time I'm reading "The Mighty Miss Malone" by "Christopher Paul Curtis" it's a story about a black family who lives around Gary Indiana and have to move to Flint to Michigan and hope to fine some type of work in the factory. Sure there racial issure but also there class issue too...Coffee is on

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    1. That's an award winning book, and has gotten a lot of good reviews Well worth reading.

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  6. I'm so glad you brought up this topic, Alana. It proves how far the human race has come. When I read about all the suicide bombings etc. nowadays, I begin to wonder if the human race will ever improve. But you've pointed out some ways this has been achieved. Of course there are still slaves, just not that sort. Gotta keep trying.

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    1. When you see that movie, you do realize the progress we have made - slow, perhaps, but progress all the same.

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  7. My family is from the South, so I clearly remember the attitudes of my older relatives and the difficulty they had adjusting to societal changes.
    Even language that we would gasp at hearing in polite company and smack our kids for saying was commonplace and used by my grandparents as just another word. Because they were raised that way.
    I do think that this movie should be seen. I think it stands up there with the original writings of Mark Twain. Notice I said original writing. Not the watered down version they are pawning off on us today.

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  8. Had heard about this but this was insightful. :D

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