Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Finally watched Birth of a Nation. Yuck.

According to the dictionary on my computer, the term racism means "the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races." There are a lot of people that would read that definition, without the word racism, and happily, even unashamedly, identify with the phrase. I am not one of those people. But they are all around me. That belief about different races is not limited to only people descended from European tribes, I've learned as I've traveled the world. And when people tout any race - their own or someone else's - as smarter, kinder, more family-oriented, sneakier, more violent, more passionate, more creative, better with money, or WHATEVER - than other races, I get a really ugly pain in my stomach. Racism is real.

In our vernacular use, most people, when they say something is racist, mean something much stronger: they use the word for something that has a message that is demeaning at best, and hateful at worst, regarding all people of a particular race. When someone says some book or movie or play or whatever is racist, that's usually what they mean: that the piece is demeaning to an entire race.

When someone says, "Hey, that's racist" about a movie or book or play or whatever, if I haven't seen it or read it or whatever, I'll give it a look. And sometimes, I don't find it truly racist - I don't always think the author or screenwriter or whatever is trying to say something specfici about all members of a race, good or bad. Maybe I do think it's racist, but I think it's more a relic of a time - presentation of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations we all, surely, know now aren't true, right? Often, I think, yes, it's racist - but it's far, far more sexist, so why aren't we talking about that?!

In short, I'm not quick to jump on the oh-my-goodness-that's-racist! bandwagon. So knowing that's my MO, please take this for what it is worth:

I finally watched Birth of a Nation, all three plus hours of it, and it's the most hateful, racist-filled crap of a movie I've ever seen in my life. By far. It's absolutely reprehensible. It's so much worse than I ever imagined. To call it racist doesn't even begin to describe its horribleness. It is hideous.

Tons of old American movies are racist. Maybe all of them. Maybe all of the new ones as well. I love old movies, but loving old movies, like Gone With the Wind, is like loving my grandparents (one of whom I'm relatively certain was in the White Citizens League back in the 1950s): racist, painfully so at times, but there are so many, many other wonderful things about them that are worth loving, worth loving deeply, and I do so, even if, at times, they make me cringe - or even make me angry and ashamed. I look at the entire picture, and see what the heart of the message is, and what might be a product of the time, and see if I can reconcile, if the heart is good and greater than the unpleasantness around it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't.

There's a racist joke and a couple of racist scenes in my beloved Duck Soup.  There's oh-so-much racism in Red Dust, yet another film I adore. There's a couple of cringe-worthy comments in His Girl Friday, a comedy we all claim to love. Often, in a quest to not address racism, movies simply ignore that black Americans or Asians exist at all - not exactly racism, but most definitely not anything to applaud. I am fully conscious of the racism every time I watch these films, but it doesn't keep me from enjoying them, because there is so much more there, so many wonderful portrayals of the human spirit and of human values. If I avoided movies that could be considered racist, I wouldn't watch any movies.

And I'm always amazed at how the people so quick to tell me what is and isn't racist will roll their eyes when I start to talk about sexism in movies - especially when I go off on The Philadelphia Story, a movie I LOATHE for its horrible sexist message: men cheat on their wives, but as long as they go back to their wives eventually, or don't entirely leave them, they are just being normal and women should accept it. BITE ME.

But the obvious, hateful agenda of Birth of a Nation... its entire story, its characters, its presentation - EVEN THE TITLE... it is all beyond anything I can get my head around. It has no other purpose than to say that African Americans are sex-crazed buffoons naturally prone to violence, that their subjugation was (and is) for the good of everyone in the USA, and that the only way to have world peace is for white people to be united in their subjugation of Africans everywhere. It also promotes a twisted view of history, saying explicitly that, before the Civil War, there was no one nation, there was no union - just happy independent states doing entirely as they pleased (which makes it perfectly in-line with the modern-day GOP, but I digress...). Birth of a Nation has NO OTHER PURPOSE than inspiring hate and feelings of superiority by white Americans, and to say that the USA should give states the right to subjugate black Americans. It wasn't made primarily to tell a love story, or a survival story, or a horror story, or any kind of story: it was made solely to say horrific things about one race of people, and to claim it was best for the people of that race to be enslaved by another race of people, who the movie says are superior intellectually, emotionally, culturally and spiritually. It promotes a passionate, irrational hatred of black Americans - and it makes the Ku Klux Klan the heroes. That's its message, first and foremost.

Geesh, the movie is so freakin' racist that many of the black characters are played by white actors with make-up, when those characters were required to come in contact with a white actress. This film is widely credited for reviving the long-dead Ku Klux Klan - and I completely see why.

I have always hoped, having not seen it, that maybe it was just really outdated, that it would turn out, once I saw it, to be just to be just archaic and misguided. At worst, insidious. Nope, there's no stealth here - it's infused with angry, intense, unashamed arrogance regarding the film-maker's supremacist beliefs. No subtlety at all.

I can't admire the film-making techniques of Birth of a Nation any more than I can in Triumph of the Will. I don't give a rat's ass that this movie pioneered panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots, the staging of battle scenes, color tinting and having its own musical score. I DON'T CARE. It's like saying, "Sad about the stabbing of that family, but look how well the knives worked! What technique!"

D.W. Griffith didn't make Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages as a follow-up in order to apologize for Birth of a Nation - isn't it OBVIOUS that he made that follow-up because he was so upset at people disgust at B of a N, that he felt the criticism was, itself, intolerance and that such was unfair? Well, DW, yes, the criticism, the disgust, were - and are - intolerance. And humans have a right to express such, to reject your pathetic world view. No, I don't think this movie should be banned. But I also think it needs to be presented honestly and openly for what it is - no sugar-coating, no oh-but-the-film-techniques! justifications. Let's present it as the love letter to white supremicists that it is. That is what it is. Period.

I'm really glad Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed it. I'm glad I've seen it. But I'm disappointed to learn it's even more horrible than I ever expected. Wow.

On a side note: I was on the light rail coming home from Portland in 2013, and was eavesdropping on a group of African women, I think from Tanzania, and a group of Indian women talking about movies they love. And they all love Gone With the Wind, and went on and on about why. They loved it like I do. No mention of its racism was ever made - I kept listening for it, but it never happened. Sometimes I wonder if people in other countries, even Africans, understand the horrors of slavery in the Americas... but I kind of loved that they loved the film without experiencing any racist subtext. The way women are expected to enjoy so many films without getting upset about the sexism.

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