“Birth of a Nation” on MLK Day

I’m a silent movie fan, and I often attend Jeff Rapsis’s presentations of them with live keyboard accompaniment. He’ll be accompanying a silent movie on Friday evening at Arisia, and I recommend going to see it, even though I won’t be there myself.

On Thursday the 14th, he’ll be presenting a more controversial choice in Plymouth, NH: D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It presents a story of the Civil War and its aftermath and actually makes the Ku Klux Klan the heroes. The intertitles include quotations from Woodrow Wilson praising the Klan. Jeff chose this movie specifically for Martin Luther King’s birthday and explains his reasoning in his blog:

Yes, it was a ground-breaking feature film that showed the potential of cinema as an art form.

At the same time, it’s an appallingly racist film that glorifies the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

But this is why I think showing the film is a fitting way to commemorate the work of Dr. King and all who have fought racism in this nation and everywhere.

What better way to honor the efforts of those who have fought for equality than to bear witness to what they were up against?

Isn’t it worthwhile to see first-hand how pervasive racism was at one time in this country?

It’s a courageous choice, particularly in a college town, and his points are especially important when students are encouraged to have PTSD attacks every time they encounter something unpleasant. At the same time, I think it could have been done better, perhaps by combining it with a formal presentation on the resurgence of racism during the 1910s. (I’ve mentioned to Jeff on a couple of occasions that I think Wilson was a vile person, and not just because of his racial policies; Jeff disagrees.)

Some people are unhappy about the timing of the movie. The president of the Black Student Union at PSU correctly says the movie is “a product of white supremacy.” If the result is better understanding of the ideas of the period, and not mindless protest, it’s better for people to see the film than to think such things never existed.

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