'Birth of a Nation' at 100; D.W. Griffith film still stirs debate.

AuthorItalie, Hillel

Byline: Hillel Italie

NEW YORK -- 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 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. It's difficult because for a channel like Turner Classic Movies you can't just avoid it. It wouldn't be appropriate to pretend it was never made.''

No film before had so forcefully, or painfully, demonstrated that the big screen could challenge the novel and textbook as a way of interpreting and thinking about the past. James Baldwin would damn it as "an elaborate justification of mass murder.'' Eric Foner, a leading Reconstruction historian, said in a recent interview that the film did "irreparable damage to public consciousness and also to race relations.'' Fellow scholar Annette Gordon-Reed calls Griffith both a genius and a "lousy historian.''

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...

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