Movies can shape public opinion and in many ways are an indicator of the Status quo. They can be used to sway sympathies, sometimes in the wrong direction. The historic film The Birth of a Nation (1915) which I’ll be discussing in this blogpost went a long way in convincing people to join the racist white supremacist hate group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a turning point in film history It was the first 12-reel film ever made and, three hours long, also the longest. It was the first to have a musical score for an orchestra. It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands. The film was America’s first feature-length motion picture, and during its groundbreaking three hours director D.W. Griffith popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to filmmaking today. It must have been exciting to watch on the big screen at a time when people did not have a tv at home.
1915 was a different time, The Birth Of A Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized african americans. White actors in blackface played the part of freed slaves who tormented white women. This film is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube. It's a work that tries to pass lies off as reality.
As confederate monuments are being torn down all across the United States, we need to remember that at the time proud southerners were still recovering from the blow they took after the defeat in the civil war. The Birth Of A Nation (1915) was a way to heal from these wounds and restore that southern pride. The villains were freed slaves run amok while Ku Klux Klan members restored order and protected the public. It's impossible to imagine a movie like this being made now but in 1915 this was the norm.
So effective was The Birth of a Nation (1915) in stirring people, that the KKK adopted their practice of burning the cross from the film. D.W. Griffith used cross burning in a scene purely because he thought it looked cinematically interesting. It was quite literally a case of life imitating art. The KKK went on to use cross burning to terrorize African Americans for generations.
The early 20th century was a hard time for black americans in the movie Industry. That didn't stop Oscar Micheaux the first african american filmmaker from producing The Homesteader (1919) and Within Our Gates (1920) a response to D.W Griffith's The Birth Of A Nation (1915).
Within Our Gates (1920) told the story of an educated black woman and her struggle to revive a near bankrupt school for impoverished black youths. It aimed to show that the reality of racism in the US was that African-Americans were more likely to be lynched and exploited by whites than the other way around.
From the very beginning of hollywood there has been a conflict between opposite sides of the racial divide. The deplorable practice of using black face continued throughout the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's and early 1950's. The Bull-Dogger (1921), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Up in the Air (1940). In the mid 1950's the growing momentum of the civil rights movement began to be reflected in hollywood. Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954) featured a black cast and not white actors painted in black face.
Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for his role in Lillies of the Field (1963) audiences and critics alike were swept away with Poitier's portrayal of a travelling handyman who becomes the answer to the prayers of a group of nuns who wanted to build a chapel in the desert. Black americans were finally beginning to have a more positive roles in cinema, but the struggle continued on and off the screen.
So called blaxploitation films from the late 1960's and early 70's were produced by white film makers for black audiences. These films were basically a way to exploit black audiences and fill movie theatres in urban areas. No thought went into these productions, they would take an established genre like crime movies or vampire movies Blacula (1972) and replace the white cast with a black cast.
The 1980's saw the rise of Eddie Murphy a much loved african american stand up comic and actor. Richard Pryor an influential actor/comedian who was well known for his obscene language during his live comedy shows and his hectic life also rose to fame in the 80's.
In 1985, Spike Lee began work on his first feature film,She's Gotta Have It. With a budget of only $175,000, he shot the film in two weeks. When the film was released in 1986, it grossed over $7 million at the U.S. box office. In 1989 his film Do the Right Thing was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Many people believed that it also deserved a Best Picture nomination. Driving Miss Daisy, by director Bruce Beresford about an old Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur in the American South won Best Picture that year. Spike Lee said that Driving Miss Daisy's success, which he thought was based on safe stereotypes, hurt him more than if his film had not been nominated at all.
70 years after The Birth Of A Nation (1915) was released portrayal of african americans, though improved are still stereotypes like the black chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy (1989). That is what Spike Lee was referring to. He went on to direct many successful films throughout the 90's including the epic Malcolm X (1992) a biography of the black nationalist leader, exploring his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his membership in the Nation of Islam.
Spike Lee finally received the acclaim he deserved in 2018 with the release of BlacKkKlansman nominated for six Academy Awards and won Best Adapted Screenplay. Nominations included best Picture & best supporting actor. The film was also nominated for best film editing and best original score.
2018 was a great year for black cinema, Ryan Coogler released Black Panther where after the death of his father, T'Challa returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. When a powerful enemy suddenly reappears, T'Challa's ability as king and as Black Panther gets tested when he's drawn into a struggle that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his team and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his enemies and secure the safety of his people.
So it's been 98 years since The Birth Of A Nation (1915) and the role of african americans in cinema has come a long way. In reaction to the recent protests Gone With The Wind (1939) has been removed from all streaming services. Once considered a classic, Victor Fleming's' "story of the old south" with its depiction of house servant, Prissy by Butterfly McQueen is seen as dated and offensive. What was once glorified is now vilified.
Hollywood loves to find "the other" to use a scary foreign entity. What does all this have to do with us you ask? As filmmakers in the middle east we face our own struggle. It seems that all that festivals want to hear from us is one of two things, either the oppression of women or the evils of terrorism. Although both may be unfortunate realities in particular societies, we must not allow ourselves to be typecast. There is more to our society than terrorism and oppression of women, we should let that be reflected in our movies.
As filmmakers we need to create a counter media to show the world that our culture is not what they’ve seen in movies like True Lies (1994) nor are we the orientalist stereotypes seen Indiana Jones (1981). Cinemagic aims to have more to give the world, the rest of the world will not know the beauty of our society if we do not show it to them.