To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Hendersonville Film Society has given over the month of September to screening two very long movies (each split in two) dealing with the war and its aftermath. (I guess they decided that firing on Fort Sumter would be too much.) The first is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film of tremendous historical significance, which is often thought of as the moment American cinema grew up—at least in terms of what film was capable of doing. (It very often attempts more than it can actually accomplish.) Based on (and originally titled) The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr., this is a film that has been plagued by controversy since the very start—the title should give you a clue why, if you don’t already know. The first half of the film—detailing the war itself—is reasonably level-headed, but the second half, which deals with reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan is another matter altogether. Griffith thought he was presenting a fair picture of the era, but it was a picture badly skewed by his own racism, spawned by his background. And it’s impossible to deny that the film itself is racist in turn. That, however, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen. On the contrary, it should be seen—not just because it’s historically significant filmmaking, but because it’s important to be reminded of this mindset, which is a dangerous thing to forget or pretend never existed. This does not, however, keep the film from being difficult to watch on occasion.
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