film: Griffith – The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I could never figure out how a film could possibly turn the KKK into heroes–I could never imagine that someone really could make a film so sympathetic to the South. Knowing that this film is greatly responsible for the KKK’s second rise (or so I’ve read), I do wonder how much of it has influenced the Southern mind–I mean the “South will rise again” mind. The North looks like a bunch of crooks, and while my whole life I’ve been a big fan of General Sherman and his march, watching a similar episode occur here kinda broke my heart, kinda made me hate the North. Lincoln is pictured well, because he supports the white man, but all those black characters always have their eyes wide and spinning, bouncing around and lusting after power and sex with all the determined appearance of any Disney villain. Meantime, the South is stripped of all its rights as the blacks are placed in control of it, becoming its judges and its juries, persecuting the whites in any way they can, the whites are refused voting rights while the evil blacks vote multiple times, the blacks begin treating the whites like second-class citizens, not giving them even the courtesy of allowing the whites to share the sidewalk with them, as they all quit working in the fields, quit working altogether and spend their time dancing like animals, unlike the civilized ballroom dances we see the white soldiers partake of. There’s no doubt in my mind that by the time the KKK shows up on the scene, I’ll be firmly in their favor. At least for the duration of this film…(I’m only half through…but I had to write this).

My other observation is this: though I don’t know what comprised the original soundtrack, the one I’ve been auditing includes what I seem to recall as Dvořák’s 8th Symphony–for those of you counting, and assuming I’m not mistaken, that’s the one right before his Symphony from the New World–though, unfortunately, also right before his trip to the United States, about which he commented “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” Though, as I also recall, there’s little evidence of anything but European influence in the work. It would be ironic were the music the 9th Symphony, but not so much as it is…and perhaps a reason to jump with laughter would be if the music was all Scott Joplin, but…as it is…not so much. Except this: if Wagner can remind us of Nazis, Dvořák can remind us of the Negroes (that’s a politically incorrect word, but I wouldn’t say “Cowboys and First Americans” either…it ruins the point.)

The Birth of a Nation did not fail–I found myself quietly urging, shouting, “hurry up KKK! hurry up and save them!” And was grateful when the evil blacks who had overrun the town, its government, its good people, raping and rioting through the streets, were finally put back in their place, their votes taken away, by the good KKK. That’s worth something–that this fine art, still brand new, has the power to take a liberal Jew of modern sympathies, and turn him into an old fashioned white supremacist! That says something else: that the belief system of white supremacy is too weak to bear itself; it takes a film of falsities and melodrama to rally its troops in favor of the cause.

4 May 2007

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