Racist films appalling, but provide lessons in history

Robert Taylor

The year was 1915 and The Birth of a Nation forever changed the way the public would view motion pictures.

D.W. Griffith’s film was the first of its kind to use editing to build tension in a scene and one of the first to use an epic battle sequence. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly loved the film, and in its first year, more than a million people saw it, a record at the time.

The film’s original name was The Clansman, and it features the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the film, putting the fear of God into black men (mostly white men in blackface) who terrify white women. Klansmen helped hype the premier of the film by having parades.

In 1946 Disney released Song of the South, a tale that mixed live action and animation and told the story of an old man who told a boy stories of Br’er Rabbit and his friends. The film inspired Splash Mountain in Disney World and is where the Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” comes from.

Of course, the boy is the son of a slave owner, and he befriends a slave, which gets him in trouble with his parents. It is rumored that the film’s star, James Baskett, could not attend the film’s premier because no hotel would give him a room.

In 1935, the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will was released and recounted a Nazi Rally. It is universally considered one of the most technically well-made documentaries ever.

These films have been banned for years at a time because of their promotion of evil themes. Birth of a Nation was not allowed to be shown in Chicago or New York for decades, and Song of the South has not been reissued for years nor has it surfaced on video or DVD in the United States.

I recently had a chance to view all three films, and my reactions to Birth and Triumph were quite visceral and immediate. I got sick to my stomach and don’t think I can ever watch the movies again.

Song of the South was a bit different. The main character, Uncle Remus, is by far the smartest character in the film and many of the black characters are three-dimensional and witty. Still, the film does have many troubling undercurrents moving through it that troubled me greatly.

But should these films be banned and only available for select viewers in classrooms to see? Should every frame of the films be burned because they show racism that still, sadly, exists in our society today?

The answer, unhappily, is no.

As human beings, as flawed human beings, we need to know that we have the choice to watch these films, and other films with morally shaky undercurrents. Films such as Gone With The Wind, Passion of the Christ, King Kong, Plague of the Zombies, Aladdin, Basic Instinct, Freaks, The Deer Hunter . the list could continue indefinitely.

These films can be very ugly and people’s reactions to these films can be just as appalling. You can’t shut the films away in a box and act like they don’t exist, because they do and they represent a certain time in our history. If people just ban these films then we are almost certainly doomed to repeat their mistakes, and I, for one, can’t imagine doing that.

Believe it or not, good things came out of these motion pictures. Like everyday life, things can’t simply be black and white; they are often odd shades of gray. Griffith forever regretted the racism in Birth and later made such important films about racial relations like Intolerance and Broken Blossoms, which featured the first interracial romance. Having a black lead actor in any movie, let alone a Disney film, was unheard of at the time Song of the South was released and it paved the way more diverse leads as time progressed.

The ability to choose to watch these films is just as important as the ability to choose not to see these movies, but the point is that we need the choice.

Choose wisely, and if you choose to watch these films (and I am not telling you that you should ever do it if you feel the least bit uncomfortable with it), deal with everything in the movies instead of cutting off your emotional resonance to them. Whether it is hatred, anger or understanding, you’ll have learned something about yourself in the process.

Contact ALL correspondent Robert Taylor at [email protected].