Tuesday, June 8, 2010

100 years, 100 films 6: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

About a month or so ago I reviewed a film called Odds Against Tomorrow, and I complained about its hamfisted diatribes on race relations. I mean, I agreed with what the film was saying (racism=bad), but it was saying it clunkily, and it was kind of annoying. Ah, for the days when I was mildly annoyed by clunkily handled pleas for racial equality. The Birth of a Nation also has clunkily handled messages about race relations, except the messages that The Birth of a Nation preaches are hate-filled diatribes against anyone and everyone who isn't white. It is one of the most spiteful, enraging movies I have ever watched. What the hell kind of a film has the goddamn KKK as the heroes? Honestly! What the hell? And what does D.W. Griffith, hatemonger extraordinaire, have to say about his obvious detestation of black people? "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives." (Shutup, dude, you're just making it worse).

There are people out there who will tell you that one must view this film in its historical context - that racism was an accepted part of life back then, and that ideas of racial sensitivity were basically unheard of. I call bullshit on all that crap. People back then knew that this film was racist - many of them complained about it at the time. This film isn't just standard level turn of the century casual racism, this film is just ridiculously hateful. There is a scene in this movie where a black man asks a white woman to marry him. The white woman is so disgusted and infuriated that she immediately flees, running off of a cliff and killing herself. The black man had absolutely no intention of causing her any harm, and the fact that she died was just a horrible, tragic accident. The black man is seen fleeing the scene of the death by the woman's lover, who assumes that the black man murdered the woman. The white man gets a whole bunch of his white buddies (also known as the Ku Klux Klan) together to chase down the black man. One of the buddies finds the black man, they get in an altercation, and the black man is forced to kill the white man in self defence. The KKK then capture him, hold a "trial", and immediately declare him guilty and murder him. And for some insane reason we're supposed to sympathise with the white guys! I mean, what the hell? That makes no goddamn sense! None of that was the black guy's fault! It was a series of unfortunate events that spiralled well out of control! WHY IS HE BEING KILLED, YOU STUPID SHITHEADS?

So people'll say, "that was a common attitude at the time. It's no longer acceptable, but they didn't know any better." FUCK THAT. A Broadway musical called Show Boat openned only ten years after the release of Birth of a Nation. Show Boat, which was a mammoth success, is a show all about how terrible and hurtful and bad racism is. THIS WAS RELEASED ONLY TEN YEARS LATER. People at the time where perfectly capable of putting two and two together and realising that, you know, black people were humans, and all, and that maybe they should be treated as such. I mean, YES, attitudes have evolved a lot since that time, but this isn't just Rochester from the Jack Benny Program levels of racism. This is Ku Klux Klan levels of racism, and that was never acceptable. There has never been a time when the KKK weren't assholes.

But, okay, let's say that I chose to listen to those people who were telling me to look past the horrible racism, and see the film that existed underneath. Well, the film underneath is... well... it's just not that good. I mean, it isn't bad, but what's so great about it? It's not a film that even comes close to being able to justify its three hour running time. It plays kind of like James Cameron's Avatar - kind of slow and tedious a lot of the time, cardboard cutout characters who are entirely uninteresting, telegraphed villains, poorly executed plot twists, and pretty decent action scenes (that it's difficult to actually care about). I've read reviews of the film that claimed that the first hour of movie was great - why? Even before they all become hella racist, the characters are totally unengaging. I just didn't care about anyone in this film. What was interesting about any of them? I guess some of the villains were interesting, except that I wanted them to succeed, and the film was trying to tell me they were evil. Oh no! A black person who wants to be a politician? Burn him! Burn him at the stake!

But there I go again, bringing the racism back into it. It is difficult for me to think about this film without being infuriated, but when I wasn't being infuriated, I was just being bored. I mean, I suppose one could claim that the battle scenes were impressive. But they weren't, you know, interesting, or anything. It was just a bunch of men running around. Why should I care? The movie never bothers to give me a reason.

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