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Birth of a Nation’ -- 100 years on, debate on film endures

February 12, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) — One hundred years ago this spring, Hollywood came of age in a blaze of wonder and fury.

D.W. Griffith’s three-hour Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation,” was released in April 1915 after a special showing in March at President Woodrow Wilson’s White House. It is widely recognized as a blueprint for the feature-length movie and as a showcase for Griffith’s Tolstoyan command of historical narrative, from the battlefield to the front porch.

But one of the greatest glories in movie history is also one of its lasting shames. Within Griffith’s lovingly assembled images is a story that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, demonized blacks and sealed the misconception that the Reconstruction era in the South after the Civil War in the late 1800s was a disastrous experiment in racial equality.

So now, at the film’s centennial, an industry that loves and thrives on honoring its past may allow one of its defining moments to go largely unobserved.

Turner Classic Movies, one of the prime outlets for silent cinema, is uncertain how or whether to mark the anniversary, said Charles Tabesh, senior vice president.

“It’s not just something you can put in the schedule,” he said. TCM has occasionally aired the film, which is in the public domain, but he explained, “We’ve provided an introduction and explained why it’s on, but even with that, we’ve gotten responses ranging from minor complaints to a lot of people who were really upset about it. ”

Over the past quarter century, “Birth of a Nation” has been enshrined and entombed.

In 1992, to much criticism, the Library of Congress added Griffith’s work to the National Film Registry, calling it a “controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece.” For decades, the Directors Guild of America awarded a D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement, but dropped the prize in 1999 to “create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history.”

In 1998, the American Film Institute listed “Birth of a Nation” at No. 44 on a list of the best 100 American movies. The film does not appear on a 2007 AFI “Best 100″ list, which instead features “Intolerance,” Griffith’s atonement for “Birth.” A planned screening in 2004 at a Los Angeles theater was canceled because of protests.

“The Birth of a Nation” is historical drama, but for the director it was something close to emotional autobiography. David Wark Griffith was born in Kentucky in 1875, just a decade after the Civil War ended. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army Although Kentucky was a border state that did not secede and was relatively unaffected by Reconstruction, Griffith related to the source material for “Birth of a Nation,” Thomas Dixon’s novel and play “The Clansman.”

“Griffith did not question the core assumption of Dixon’s story: that blacks, once the supposedly benevolent bonds of slavery had been overthrown, became violent and threatening to whites, especially women,” says Melvyn Stokes, author of “D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.”

He was a man of the late 19th century mastering the tools of a revolutionary medium of the 20th century — moving images. After several years of acting and script writing, he directed his first movie, in 1908. By 1914, Griffith was among the country’s top directors.

“As he refined and developed his filmmaking art, he became ambitious to do longer, more ‘epic’ films,” Stokes said, noting that Griffith had studied the Italian production “Quo Vadis” and a French production, “Queen Elizabeth.”

“He was also keen to produce works like these based on history, since historical subjects were seen as a means of making motion pictures ‘respectable’ and appealing to the more lucrative, middle-class audience.”

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