Debate born with "Birth of a Nation'

Sunday, June 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

No film better signifies the debate over the place of film in our culture than The Birth of a Nation.

The 1915 silent epic by D.W. Griffith was sensationally popular when it was released. In technique it is a seminal work, the pioneer model for a new art form. Yet, in content it is despicable propaganda that justified, even glorified, ghastly racial violence.

In both respects it is an extraordinary artifact of its time, testimony to the technical and artistic vigor of a new century and to the death-grip of racism on American society.

Movies do more than entertain and divert us. They hold up a mirror to the world. Mr. Griffith did not intend to indict Ku Klux Klan sympathizers for their indefensible attitudes and actions. Yet that is exactly the effect of the movie on modern audiences.

Certainly The Birth of a Nation is a historical touchstone; it is also compelling evidence of a shameful part of American history some would rather ignore or deny.

Does it belong on the American Film Institute nominee list? Yes. Is it a beloved work of art? Not on your life.

Such questions are part and parcel of the American Film Institute's "One Hundred Years, One Hundred Movies" poll. It's what what makes it a worthy, even a noble, effort.

The poll results will not end debate, but they will elevate mainstream regard for the most democratic art form.

Many millions have never set foot inside an art gallery or attended an opera, symphony or ballet. Shocking numbers of deprived souls never read books for pleasure. But it is a rare American who has never seen a movie.

Movies influence even those who don't frequent the multiplex or the video store. They are inescapably embedded in the culture. The best films encode our values, our emotions and our sense of how the world works. They connect across cultures. They provide a shared experience in a society ragged with missed connections.

In a heartbeat, we measure the psychic distance between "Here's looking at you, kid," and "You looking at me?"

The movies taught us that.

McGurk's picks

Margaret A. McGurk is Enquirer film critic. Write her at 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202; fax to (513)
768-8330; e-mail to

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