Analysis: 'Birth of a Nation' silenced

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Aug. 12, 2004 at 6:06 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The owner of a silent-movie theater in Los Angeles has canceled plans to screen D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," providing further evidence that race remains something of a "third rail" issue in American culture.

Charlie Lustman had planned to run the picture last Monday to kick off a weekly series of classic silent features at his Silent Movie Theatre, which he bills as the only remaining silent-movie theater in the country.

Part of the publicity buildup for the screening, and the series, was a feature article last week in the Los Angeles Times. Lustman told the paper that although he sympathizes with people who are offended by the movie's depiction of blacks and issues of race in the Old South, "The Birth of a Nation" was the right movie to launch the series.

"I'm very serious about this Monday series," he said, "and I thought, why not start it out with the biggest and most cinematic gem in history?"

Following a protest led by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a community activist and head of the National Alliance for Positive Action, Lustman decided Monday to cancel the screening.

Lustman went into the venture with some prior experience in the problems that can attend a public screening of "The Birth of a Nation." He had planned to show it at the Silent Movie Theatre in 2000 during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles but was persuaded to cancel his plans following a protest by the NAACP.

This time around, Hutchinson told the Times his group was "pleased the owner had enough respect for the community" to call off Monday's screening.

"But this is bigger than just 'Birth of a Nation,'" he said. "It's about the damaging effects of horrible images that still resonate almost 100 years later."

Griffith -- born 10 years after the end of the Civil War, the son of a Confederate Army colonel from Kentucky -- directed hundreds of short subjects in Hollywood before turning to features. He is widely credited with introducing to commercial filmmaking many production techniques still in use after nearly 100 years.

For many years, "The Birth of a Nation" was regarded as the greatest movie ever made -- giving it a cachet rivaling that of "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca."

But Griffith's 1915 epic was always controversial. Writing about his new book, "The Great Movies II," film critic Roger Ebert recalls that after a quote appeared in public in which President Woodrow Wilson praised the movie, Wilson's staff disassociated the president from the quote.

Ebert himself conceded that he was "avoiding" the subject when he omitted mention of "The Birth of a Nation" from his first "Great Movies" book in 2002.

"It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith's 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) in the first Great Movies collection," Ebert wrote in June, "but have only now arrived at 'Birth of a Nation.'"

When the Directors Guild of America instituted its lifetime achievement award in 1953, it named the prize for Griffith. The DGA retired the Griffith Award in 1999 and replaced it with the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jack Shea, president of the DGA at the time, said the change was intended to reflect changing times.

"There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors," said Shea. "However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

Hollywood was already taking steps in the '50s to break away from those stereotypes.

The 1955 drama "Blackboard Jungle," for example, presented Sidney Poitier as a black youth who tries to rise above a tough environment. In 1958 Poitier co-starred with Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones," a groundbreaking movie in which a pair of escaped convicts -- one black and one white -- must learn to coexist if they are to gain freedom.

Poitier stands as something of an icon of Hollywood's showiest civil-rights era movies, including "Lilies of the Field," "A Patch of Blue" and Kramer's classic take on the challenging nature of authentic tolerance, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

By 1994 John Travolta's Vincent Vega was tossing the "N" word around indiscriminately with Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield in writer-director Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Today, Hollywood has learned that pairing white and black actors -- such as Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in "Collateral" or Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black" -- can contribute to a project's profitability.

Quite apart from its significance as a revolutionary force in the technique of filmmaking, "The Birth of a Nation" also serves to illustrate the depth and severity of the damage that slavery and racism have caused in American culture.

One can only wonder how the controversy will play out in 2015, when the movie's centennial anniversary arrives.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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