In his December 2012 interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Quentin Tarantino notes of Thomas Dixon's The Clansmen, that it "really can only stand next to Mein Kampf when it comes to just its ugly imagery." To which Gates replies, "It's pure evil." As they continue to chat, Tarantino and Gates conflate The Clansmen with The Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith's 1915 adaptation of Dixon's work, and Gates, after Tarantino avows that he doesn't use the word "evil" lightly, continues, apropos the film, "And a foundational moment in the history of cinema."
There indeed is the rub, and for as long as there is cinema, and cinephiles, and cinema historians, The Birth of a Nation will be maybe the greatest "problem picture" of all time, greater by far than The Triumph of the Will. While Riefenstahl's picture seems to us frozen in an unspeakable historical moment, its fascist aesthetics ever-ossifying into a species of malevolent kitsch, in the United States of America Griffith's vehemently racist vision is never not relevant, to use a word I'm not particularly fond of. A formulation I'm not particularly fond of either is the "what-we-talk-about-when" one; on the occasions it comes up, my reflexive response begins with "what do you mean 'we'?" Nevertheless, seeing how Gates and Tarantino talk about Nation reminds one that the movie's position as a film maudit is as singular as its position as a defining masterwork of epic American film. It is a film that literally cursed itself, by dint of the brutality of its racism; and the curse it put upon itself grows uglier year after year.
Chatting with Gates, Tarantino extrapolates Griffith, the Kentucky-born-and-raised son of a Confederate colonel, as a man obsessed, and paints his obsession as an entirely malevolent one. "[I]t's one thing for the grandson [sic] of a bloody Confederate officer to bemoan how times have changed -- some old racist Southern old-timer bemoaning how life has changed, complaining that there was a day when you never saw a n--ger [sic] on Main Street, and now you do. Well, if he's just going to sit on his porch and sit in his rocking chair and pop off lies, who cares? That's not making The Birth of a Nation every day for a year, and financing it yourself." As if the entirety of the labor put into Nation was in the service of black subjugation. Tarantino has a vivid imagination, and a lot of general stuff going on in his head, but one might expect that, being a a filmmaker himself he could conceive that the day to day making of this film might not have been entirely a case of getting up every morning and saying "Time to get to subjugating the Negro!"
That said, I also don't expect Tarantino to be able to simulate a frame of mind in which The Birth of a Nation was actually NOT an effort driven wholly by malevolent intent, and I'm not sure it would be socially, spiritually, or intellectually useful for anybody to try to do same. Anyway, fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, we have a historical record from which we can discover exactly what such a frame of mind was able to come up with in defense of Griffith's vision. As in:
"Today, Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; not can I be sure that the film won’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years."
I was thinking of doing an "anyone in class care to guess, put your hands down [names of critics X, Y, and Z]" joke here, but that would be too coy. Anyway: yes, that was James Agee, writing in The Nation, no less, in a 1948 obituary for Griffith. Too which one may respond, particularly if one has watched Birth of a Nation recently (I just did, on the splendid Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc presentation), define "fair." Because, man, oh man. Between the self-pitying resentment, the schizzy miscegenation paranoia, and all the other racial neuroses-to-psychoses filtered through overheated post-Victorian melodrmatic tropes (the building blocks from which Griffith constructed his new model of cinematic narrative), the prominent racial observation of The Birth of a Nation is "the only tolerable Negro is a subservient Negro," which, you know, doesn't strike me as "fair." And yet James Agee thought it was? How can this be? Note the care with which he chooses his words, and the note of ambiguity in the placement of one of them: that Griffith went to lengths to be fair "to the Negroes as he understood them" AND that Griffith understood them "as a good type of Southerner does." The ambiguous word for me there is "good." But inasmuch as these words offer us a window into not just Agee's head in 1948, but a sentiment that it was not entirely disagreeable to articulate in The Nation in 1948, so too do Tarantino's words offer a window into what "we" think, or may think, Griffith's attitude and intentions were. We see them only as hateful. We are literally incapable of extending the sympathy to observe that Griffith saw/understood blacks "as a good Southerner would." By the same token, as amazingly constructed as the Klan-to-the-rescue climax of Birth of a Nation is, we are all in a sense socially prohibited (scratch the: not "in a sense" or even "socially" prohibited; more like, prohibited by the strictures of human decency itself) from permitting it to manipulate our sympathies as it intends/demands. In his 1915 account of the movie, the poet and writer Vachel Lindsay says of Nation that is "a crowd picture in a triple sense." Discussing the climax, he rhapsodizes: "So, in Birth of a Nation, which could better be called The Overthrow of Negro Rule, the Ku Klux Klan dashes down the road as powerfully as Niagara pours over a cliff. Finallt the white girl Elsie Stoneman (impersonated by Lillian Gish) is rescued by the Ku Klux Klan from the mulatto politician, Silas Lynch (impersonated by George Seigmann). The lady is brought forward as a typically helpless white maiden. The white leader, Col. Ben Cameron (impersonated by Henry B. Walthall), enters not as an individual, but as representing the whole Anglo-Saxon Niagara. He has the mask of the Ku Klux Klan on his face till the crisis has passed. The wrath of the Southerner against the blacks and their Northern organizers has been piled up through many previous scenes. As a result this rescue is a real climax, something that photoplays that trace strictly personal hatreds cannot achieve."
Despite the eccentric undertones of his analysis, Lindsay, among other things, nailed why Nation was/is a "foundational moment in the history of cinema." "Real climax" is something greater than it sounds like, and it is not found even in the cinematic achievements one might be more comfortable with than Griffith's film. (As in, what if it was Feuillade's Fantomas? But it isn't/wasn't, and can't be.) Lindsay loves Griffith's storytelling, and his heart, so much that he seeks fo absolve him by trying to extract him from Dixon's vision: "Griffith is a chameleon in interpreting his authors. Wheeever the scenario shows traces of The Clansmen, the original book, by Thomas Dixon, it is bad. Wherever it is unadulterated Griffith, which is half the time, it is good. The Reverend Thomas Dixon is a rather stagy Simon Legree; in his avowed views a deal like the gentleman with the spiritual hydrophobia in the latter end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unconsciously Mr. Dixon has done his best to prove that Legree was not a fictitious character."
It's very kind of Lindsay, but one need only look at the film, an uncomfortable thing to do, to realize that every frame of Nation carries the same level of conviction. It is very sad. And often very peculiar. From the prologue with the title card saying "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion" to the odd formulation of Abraham Lincoln as the "great heart" who pardons future Klan founder Ben "The Little Colonel" Cameron when he's slated to be hanged for guerilla warfare and who, before heading to the theater to be shot by Raoul Walsh, promises to treat the South as if it had never seceded, the movie's first section has these little rueful sentimental touches, not to mention reasonably powerful pacifist pleading moments, to give one the impression of Griffith as a relatively gentle-souled epic maker. Then, an hour and a half into a three-hour-plus movie, up pops the title card "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstuction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” And then, if you'll pardon the phrase, it's off to the races, with a couple of ugly citations from future fan of the film Woodrow Wilson, about "men who knew nothing of the uses of authority, except it insolences" and of "a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South." (By the way, did you know that Larry the Cable Guy is actually from Nebraska?)
Here is what I wrote in my notes while watching it the other night: "Hey, remember that tile card about five minutes ago? The immediacy of the images and the broadness of the performances pretty much wipes out THAT disclaimer. There’s really no getting round it: whatver the narrative necessity of setting these characters up as villains might have been, the execution of this can only be characterized as VEHEMENT." The film's quiet, sincere depictions of the privations the South suffered during the war, mentions of meals of "parched corn and sweet potato coffee," the description of raw cotton's use as "Southern ermine;" these now seem setups to rationalize the unrelentingly hateful portrayals of the likes of Thadeus-Stevens-pastiche Stoneman, smugly strutting Silas Lynch, "mulatto leader of the blacks[...]traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people," and whoever that black soldier is who chases poor Flora Cameron off that cliff. The dignified smiles of the blacks in the rafters of the House at the climax of Spielberg's Lincoln can, on some level, be understood as an answer scene to the repellent burlesque of the celebration of the racial intermarriage legislation in Griffith's film. But this, as we'll see, is maybe to genteel a reparation to the contemporary audience. The founding inspiration for the Klan is presaged by a lyrical picture practically out of Wordsworth, and followed by the proud intertitle statement "Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed." Which may move an observant viewer to yell at the screen "Where the hell did you fucking crackers get the goddamn MATERIAL if you were so bad off?"
It's all terribly appalling, and yet you'd have to be an entire cinematic illiterate not to see and, yes, maybe feel the skill with which Griffith pulls off his to-the-rescue "real climax" with barely minutes to spare in the film's running time. A few years ago, the critic Terry Teachout wrote about Nation as a film that "has served its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently," and avowed, prior to making that pronouncment, that it was also pretty boring, which was one reason WHY it could be swept aside: "Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film—not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it—is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities."
This notion that the mean of "modern sensibility" as circumscribed by the critic is all that counts from said critical perspective is going to have to wait, and probably for a long time (see also Stephen Metcalf's immortal bit about The Searchers being "off-putting to the contemporary sensibility," oh dearie dear). But here's the thing: let's say that you are not Terry Teachout, and you do not process the film as bring "slow" but rather you apprehend both its pace and its overall cinematic language differently and as part of a continuum that continues to this day: in that case, whatever the fuck you think about early Renaissance music or what have you, the climax of The Birth of a Nation is going to "play" for you; that's the extent to which it is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rightly put it, a "foundational moment." But what, now, is its proper place in "our" construction of cinematic history/heritage. And while the fashion has it that Birth of a Nation is some form of evil, what is the place of Django Unchained as an "answer film" to Griffith? (Tarantino has talked of his ur-Klan comedic fillip in the film as his "fuck you" to the earlier director, who died a near-penniless alcoholic forgotten by the industry he helped create, so even if he were able to receive Quentin's flip-off, it is not likely he'd be overly impressed.) And also, why isn't anyone talking about the Klan as it's represented in Gone With The Wind? So many questions.
In any event, a film in which the protagonist dryly exults "I get to kill white people and get paid for it?" is pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office in these United States. Interesting payback for a nearly hundred-year-old insult, for sure. And a reminder that whoever "we" are talking about, "Give Peace A Chance" is not and never will be "our" new jam.