If you ever have the opportunity to peruse "greatest movies of all time" lists, you'll usually find included the 1915 D.W. Griffith epic, "The Birth of a Nation." Problem is, because of its overt racism (behavior that was cultivated a century ago), you'll never find it being televised on Turner Classic Movies. Or anywhere else. Station heads don't have a death wish.
So we're faced with a situation in 2008 where a movie is considered by the experts to be one of the greatest of all time, and few people alive today have seen it.
One exception being me.
I ordered the movie from Netflix the other day and sat down to watch it yesterday evening.
All I can say is ... wow.
For a number of reasons. Not least of which had to do with the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was once held in such high regard by mainstream America that a blockbuster movie (by all standards, this one was a smash hit when it was released) glorifying efforts - manifested in physical assaults, lynchings, and terror tactics that an Osama bin Ladin could appreciate today - to suppress the then-newfound freedoms of the African-American community after the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began could be so blatant in its hatreds, animosities, stereotypes, and venomous prejudices and be so well received.
The movie having been made in 1915, there is no verbal dialogue. As was the practice in the days of silent movies, there are only the occasional slides offering up narrative between sometimes over-the-top melodramatic scenes of love and war (the innovative sweeping panoramic battle scenes provide critics the primary reason for considering this movie one of the best of all time) and suffering and hatred and fear and all the other stuff that goes into an epic flick.
Absent dialogue, one is confronted with captions that read:
The result. The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule, but not without the shedding of more blood than at Gettysburg.
We shall crush the white South under the heel of the black South.
And, at the end:
"Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!"
Union. The Birth of a Nation. That nation being a Klan-protected white America. Now and forever
All I could think about, as I watched this (3-hour) classic was: Man, we've come a long way. And thank God for it.
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Special note: the theme is really repugnant so if you're angered or revolted by such things, I'd not recommend that you rent the movie. For the historian, though, it provides a window into our post-Civil War past that you'll not see captured anywhere else in cinema.
For the curious - like me - who wonder how it is that the Klan could have had such a following as to bring about a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. in the Griffith years that was attended by tens of thousands of celebrating participants and on-lookers ...
... it all becomes clear.