An edited history of the movies

November 01, 1993

In what seems an excess of political correctness, the Library of Congress has pulled a controversial classic from its line-up of 54 films scheduled for showing as part of a year-long commemoration of the first 100 years of motion picture history. At the last minute, the library dropped American director D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic, "The Birth of a Nation," from the festival because of fears it might ignite a racial controversy.

The film, which depicts the turmoil in the South after the Civil War during the period known as Reconstruction, adopts a sentimentalized view of the era's events using racist stereotypes that depict blacks as buffoons or criminals and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors.

The movie touched off rioting in several cities after its release and was picketed by the then-fledgling NAACP.

The film's revisionist history was, in fact, common among academic historians of the period, and its vicious characterizations of African-Americans -- played by white actors in black-face -- were already familiar from minstrel shows. But it was the new cinematic techniques that Griffith invented to tell his story that gave "The Birth of a Nation" unprecedented psychological impact.

Almost three hours long, it was the first movie to fully exploit the now-familiar device of alternating long shots with close-ups to describe characters' emotions and reactions to situations. It was also the first to make dramatic use of flashbacks, multiple camera angles and parallel story lines.

That is why it was a landmark in motion picture history -- and, ironically, why it still arouses such controversy. The cinematic language Griffith invented is now so taken for granted that it is virtually invisible, leaving us to judge only the film's specious history and hateful stereotypes. "The Birth of a Nation" is important precisely because it was the first film to reveal the movies' tremendous potential as propaganda.

Griffith was a Southerner whose views were in many ways typical of many Americans at the time. That is something to be noted and put in context whenever the film is shown. But one need not accept the film's racial caricatures or the attitudes that produced them to recognize Griffith's contributions as a filmmaker. It makes no sense for anyone, least of all the national library, to try to edit history by pretending he never existed.

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