Monday, April 6, 2015
"The Birth of a Nation" by Dick Lehr (2014)
For years I wondered what the value was of having this film in the library. Then I got interested in film and realized the brilliance of the film process itself; given the times and technology. What a conundrum; a classic film with much to admire in technological marvels, but filled with flawed history and blatant racism. How do you even review a film like that?
Author Bert Lehr has gone beyond that with his all-encompassing book about the film and 2 men; both ahead of their times. D.W. Griffith was the director of the film; and Monroe Trotter was the African- American man who rallied his people; and a good portion of the nation; in denouncing the film. In addition, he has created a biography of the film itself and the rising pangs of former slaves to be treated like citizens. It is, in short, the story of an era.
The author begins with brief biographies of both men; drawing a contrast that is as remarkable as fiction. Griffith’s father was James Griffith, a staunch segregationist and veteran of the Civil War who had served with the Kentucky Calvary and fought at Charleston when the Union marched in.
Likewise, so was Trotter’s father a veteran of the Civil War; having served in an all-black regiment of the Union Army. He was one of the men who marched into Charleston as Griffith’s father fled. The irony of their two sons facing off over a film about that war, 50 years later, is remarkable.
After the film was finished; but before its release; it was screened for President Wilson in private at the White House. Wilson was a Southerner and thought the film was wonderful. Trotter saw it differently. He; along with Union veterans both black and white; organized boycotts and protests across the country, and denounced the film as racist.
Yet for all of the protestations about the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and the attendant lynching’s, the film has remained a staple of film history. Most of the times it is touted as a breakthrough film as far as technology goes. And there is much truth to that. But the darker side is that it remains a searing portrait of our country at a crossroads.
The bitter taste of Reconstruction was still very fresh on the minds and in the hearts of the southern people; just as the bitterness of slavery was still very much alive in the former slaves and their children. The Jim Crow era was in full swing. And D.W. Griffith made a film which glorified the era, as well as the swinging bodies which that era produced.
This book is all encompassing. It is two biographies in one. It is the history of the Reconstruction Era and also a look at the Jim Crow Days which ushered in a new century. Given the history of the divide, it is no surprise that the events of that century still affect us today.