This year marks the centennial of David Wark (D.W.) Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. If you’ve heard of it and you don’t have grey hair then while the story is vague in your mind the bigotry is not. The primitiveness of Mr. Griffith’s masterpiece storytelling is as obvious to Millennial viewers as is its odeous bigotry; it represents a problematic page in our nation’s history of entertainment, and artistic innovation, marking American culture as much as it reflected it.
That problem from 1915 and its relevance in 2015 raises a question: How much of American culture, America’s capacity to embrace all has changed when the same bigotry and message expressed in 1915 seems to be shown and repeated in 2015? The last two years of police and zealous civilian attacks on unarmed black Americans in Sanford, FL, Ferguson, MO, Long Island, NY, and a seeming lynching in Mississippi, as well as locations that are far less publicized, presses Americans to ask some questions.
In the Millennial era when content is beamed into homes and onto smart phones, which resemble science fiction magic 100-years-ago, the film’s aesthetics are bluntly outdated. But, without would have been established movie artistry. The Birth of a Nation did not reflect that actual birth, it effected the birth of a new, powerful medium; it established the elements of film style.
Movies rarely mark America’s culture; most of them are forgettable, which is a waste; and fodder for a separate essay. Movies rarely mark or reflect America’s history. Movies rarely affect how America sees itself or is seen either within its borders or without. National Public Radio ran a piece commemorating the centennial, which makes its own contemporary comparisons.
The Birth of a Nation changed that. Film students and work-a-day movie geeks grab bragging rights by discussing the manner in which Citizen Kane marked a artistic mile stone. But if that marked a mile then The Birth of a Nation was the first mile & first paved road at once: it was the first feature length film, before that film there was no such thing as a close-up shot, or a transition between scenes, or shooting scenes with more than one camera, and other grammatical elements that movie goers take for granted.
That is why as much as Mr. Griffith’s hateful message churns people’s stomachs, cinephiles have not choice but to hold their noses while they praise his technical and artistic talent. As embarrassed as your Millennial mind may be by how this era responds to the 19th century limits to the techniques and technology it’s amazing to consider that movies were born when horses and buggies were the norm for personal and public transportation.
So in 2015 how shocking is it to see news headlines about a streak of violence that seems to harken to the 1910s when Americans were stricken sad but not surprised by it? According to various polls that viewers will see used on TV newscasts most Americans cannot see themselves as bigots and cannot see their own bigotry. Clearly American culture has a sort of identity crisis. It is probably a compound crisis. A piece from Deadline reflects that.
Too few Americans are confident, humble, introspective enough to confront simple questions without intimidating people or stepping on toes, much less those questions which try men’s souls. The hardest question: How much progress has America made against bigots in the 100 years since the film wrote America’s history in lightning?
Wright’s Words doesn’t exist in order to incite or stir anger. But when you consider the centennial of a film that reflects one person’s notion of social justice you expect to smile or even grin at the progress that has come. And yet, as with the opening voice over to Casablanca, “we wait, and wait, and wait,…”.