In 2019, I inherited a bunch of 16mm and 35mm film, a huge cache of film that frankly made me sad to receive. Their owner, Chris Jacobs, was a collector and film professor who taught early film and filmmaking. He died an unfortunate death of leukemia a few years ago. I’d spoken to him a few times and he wanted to sell me all his collection, but I couldn’t afford it. A little later, he passed on, and I was told he wanted me to have his film.
Chris was one of those guys for whom the adage, “Still waters run deep,” was written. Always very soft-spoken, very unassuming, he was nonetheless quite friendly and willing to help if I needed something for a show. With a heavy heart, I made two epic trips to North Dakota to pick up loads of film. Not only was it unsorted–made worse by the mad dash to load the prints, which were in a basement, into a rented SUV–but the reels had suffered through two floods. Things were missing, unlabeled, stained, you name it.
I have spent many hours going through this collection, missing an old friend, finding things that I never knew were there. As with anything, much of it is stuff no one would want, things that only Chris liked, and then there was the rest of it.
It’s a treasure trove of early silent films. Not anything that would be extremely valuable… most of it is already on video. But then he’s got Kodascopes of 1920s films. Kodascopes are original 1920s prints (on safety stock). Nothing spectacular, mind you, but fascinating stuff. Educational value and just plain COOL value.
I’ve been sifting out the coolest stuff and slowly running it at conventions and sharing it with others. I think that’s what Chris would have wanted. And then one day I found THE FILM.
The Birth of a Nation (1915).
It’s not especially rare. You can probably find it on archive.org if some do-gooder hasn’t removed it. But I’d never had a film print before and I thought this would be a perfect chance to run this landmark film.
And then I thought to myself, “You can’t run that.”
You see, The Birth of a Nation is an extremely racist film. When I say extremely racist, I mean it. I’m not even going to recount the plot here. It’s not nice. But it’s also a good film. As they said in the New Yorker, “the worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.”
It was made by DW Griffith of Louisville, Kentucky, a guy who was raised in a racist society after the Civil War. Racism was so natural for him that he didn’t understand anything else.
But, like so many things, the racism is baked into it, and so is the contradiction. What do I mean? Well, we’d like to cast Griffith as a one-dimensional racist, evil to the core. But he wasn’t. How do I know? There were home movies shot at Griffith’s funeral in 1948. One of the mourners there was Madame Sul-Te-Wan, an African-American actress who appeared in several of Griffith’s films. She is weeping openly at the funeral. Griffith was her friend.
That’s certainly not enough to exonerate Griffith, but, like so many things, life is more complicated than “Cancelled” or “Not Cancelled.” There’s a lot of nuance in between.
Besides being racist and offensive, The Birth of a Nation is also one of the most important films ever made. No superlatives here. Our world looks differently today because of The Birth of a Nation. Really. Not only did it change the face of cinema, but it changed the way cities look. It helped kill vaudeville. You can’t overstate it.
Griffith was racist and a friend to African-Americans. Birth of a Nation is racist and important. I get pretty passionate about these things. You’ve heard me rail about them before.
Thomas Jefferson was a hugely important man and a racist slave owner.
Bill Cosby supported all kinds of important African American projects and he’s a convicted felon.
There’s good and bad in all of these things. If I laugh at Bill Cosby, then I’m not condoning his behavior. If I admire Thomas Jefferson for his writing and architecture, I am not condoning racism.
If I talk about the brilliant structure of The Birth of a Nation, I’m not condoning its message.
Yes, Birth of a Nation sparked riots, inspired the Ku Klux Klan to reinvent itself in my home state of Indiana, and it also proved that feature-length motion pictures could enthrall audiences for two or three hours.
That’s huge. Since the days of the 1890s, movies were put into 1000-foot reels. This size of reel could run 10-15 minutes depending on the projection speed. It was a convenient length to ship the old combustible nitrate stock. A projectionist could travel from city to city and be a part of a vaudeville tour, where all of the acts were about ten minutes. Cities had buses, interurbans, mule cars, a lot of public transportation.
At every major stop, there was a Nickelodeon. For ten minutes, you could duck in to a small shop, a projectionist would run a movie, it would be over, and they’d empty out the place for the next crew. Bigger Nickelodeons would have two or three shows. There were maybe three dozen of these in my home town of Indianapolis when Birth of a Nation opened.
If you want to see what this was like, watch DW Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1908), which shows a typical setup, a flat floor with uncomfortable seats, and a piano player. Why have comfortable seats? You were only going to be there for a few minutes. Why would you have a sloped floor? If you couldn’t see over someone’s hat, you could just stay and watch the film again. It wasn’t a big deal.
Universal Studios, which started in 1912, based its whole business model on this idea. They continued a release schedule of almost 100% short films until 1917 or so.
But Birth of a Nation is TWELVE REELS. You were sitting there for at least two hours and closer to three. OK, it wasn’t the first film this long. The Italians were doing films like Cabiria (1914). The Germans were doing it with things like The Student of Prague (1913). These films made it to the United States, but they weren’t mainstream.
Suddenly, when Birth of a Nation broke onto the scene, we had an American film that covered recent history (it was based in the Civil War, a time period no more removed from 1915 than the Vietnam War is to us.) It was thrilling, with clever, innovative chase sequences, realistic action and accurate reconstructions of historic events. It made $11,000,000 in 1915, more than $315 million dollars in today’s cash. This is probably a gross underestimate given the bookkeeping at the time.
Nickelodeons didn’t want to run a film like this. No one wanted to sit in stiff chairs in a flat room for three hours. But the big vaudeville houses, well, that was a different story. All they needed to do was to put up a big screen, throw some projectors in where the spotlights were, and ZOOM, you’ve got a movie theater with comfortable seats and a raked floor.
It started to kill vaudeville.
It started to kill the market for most film shorts.
It made people sit up and take notice of a new art form.
Theaters sprang up that were built exclusively for motion picture exhibition, something that was new. Instead of going to any street corner for a film, you’d go downtown for an evening’s entertainment.
President Woodrow Wilson allegedly called Birth of a Nation “history written with lightning.” Yes, there were lots of protests. It was considered racist from the start. DW Griffith was so upset by this reception that he made a followup film called Intolerance (1916), similarly innovative, that called for tolerance and understanding. It played to expensive road shows with a traveling orchestra. Griffith toured a lot of the midwest in it. It was a cultural event.
So you can see why I’d want to run a landmark film like Birth of a Nation. But in today’s hyper-sensitive environment, I’d be afraid for my safety. The right way to do it would be to have a cultural historian, an African-American historian, and a film historian introduce the film. In fact, that’s really the only way to do it these days, and I would encourage that kind of dialogue.
I’m a big believer in this sort of thing. A lot of these films don’t make a lot of sense if you don’t see them in context. We tend to see films through our own modern lens and it’s valuable to see them in the same way that they were seen in their day. It helps our understanding. It helps our empathy. It helps us know where we came from.
But I can’t run it.
I’m not sure why we can stand up for books but not films. When people wanted to ban Slaughterhouse Five or Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn, there were huge protests. But ban Birth of a Nation and the world is with you.
I think some of this is that films are not considered real, important art. I’m not sure why this is. Older films are particularly not considered real, important art. They are expendable, like the Sunday comics. People like me who want to preserve these things are not only irrelevant, but sometimes foolish.
I recently had a conversation with a group that openly censors old films. If there’s a scene that might be considered offensive, out it goes. Given the fact that censoring film prints is hard, they’re moving to all digital, which is easier to, let’s call it what it is, bowdlerize.
The rationale behind this is that old films are considered “societally irrelevant” and that we need to have the widest possible audience. Running a controversial picture is not in the cards, because we’d be fragmenting an already microscopic audience. One of the show sponsors said that we should all be thankful that we have any audience for our “little film hobby” at all. How patronizing that is.
The only reason that films are “societally irrelevant” is that no one sees them. No one sees them because we don’t know how to present them properly. Since we don’t present them properly, audiences don’t understand them and they react poorly. It’s a vicious cycle.
Presenting sanitized films simply shows us a world and a history that never existed and that doesn’t make sense. The great example of this is Leave it to Beaver. It was never intended to reflect reality. No one really lived in that world, and we seem to believe it represents an idyllic past. Political hacks have used clips of the show to invoke sort of fictional nostalgia.
A few years ago, I ran The Thing (1951) followed by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). I carefully explained that the latter film is the liberal reaction to an alien invasion: the military people are stupid, the aliens are misunderstood, the scientists are heroes, the government is powerless. On the other hand The Thing was the conservative reaction to an alien invasion: the military people are heroes, the scientists are wishy-washy and too intellectual, the alien is deadly, and the government is trying to do the right thing but is still powerless. I don’t think you understand these films unless you know that they’re made only six years after WWII and in the middle of a Communist threat.
You can run them without this background, but the audience won’t be as engaged. With The Birth of a Nation, the distance between us and the film is greater, and the need to provide context is increased.
And I still think I should run Chris’ print of The Birth of a Nation somewhere.