The film classic Sunset Boulevard begins with a drowned William Holden looking up from the bottom of a Hollywood mansion swimming pool and recounting in a voice over, with flashbacks, all the years of narcissism, excess and grand delusions that led to his fateful, if avoidable watery demise.
Of late I’ve been feeling like a drowned crawler, not so much swimming as “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” and, indeed, in my own bottom-fed reflections I own that I am nothing so manly as William Holden, but rather, and in keeping with the now-established T.S. Eliot vibe, a latter day Prufrock succumbing to the dead pool of human consciousness, where humankind cannot bear too much reality, and I am wholly terrified by the cleft and cling of any proffered peach.
All of this leads in a roundabout way to the freestyle swim my mind took while recently watching The Birth of a Nation(1915) in its entirety for the first time. I’d read rumors about this “great” controversial epic film, but admit I was somewhat repelled by the idea of watching three plus hours of black-and-white silence (not counting the mostly classical music soundtrack); after all, I already knew, anecdotally, that the film was regarded as an apology of sorts for the excesses of the antebellum South and a quaint glorification of the “moral” motivation of the nascent Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn’t until I had seen Griffith’s new techniques favorably compared to the “great” Nazi film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl that I sat up from my watery gravity and listened for the first time, as it were, to the mermaids singing each to each.
Having now viewed and reflected on Griffith’s Birth, I can now see the likeness of intent that Griffith’s vision seems to share with the Nazi propagandist. There is at work in Birth as in Triumph the archetypal symbolism, the broad simplification of human motivations, the idealizations of the master-slave dialectic (Griffith’s slaves pick cotton like it’s candy, and smile at their masters as only blackfaced whites playing blacks can do in teasing up the Southern Siegfried idyllism), and the absence of meaningful economic or political systems at work. Indeed, considering that it’s meant to be a three-hour epic journey into the psyche of a nation, you’d be forgiven thinking that the nation depicted in this film was filled with the stiff poses and gesture dialogues you’d expect to find in those old Classics Illustrated tales of history and happy empire.
All nations have significant “birth” moments – catalyzing events that shape national mythologies and promote characteristics and traits meant to be badges of identity. The French, the Brits, the Turks, the Czechs have all had such moments. And in 1915 – a hundred years ago – the Great War that swept Europe and Asia Minor was nothing if not a sorting machine for national identities.
In this context, Griffith’s film is a weird depiction of a nation leaning toward deep pacifism, with respect to the rest of the world in the Reconstruction decades following the carnage-filled Civil War. Birth of a Nation has two parts: in Part One, the viewer is invited to regard the antebellum South as benign and flourishing with happy plantation slaves keen to labor, and anxious to please, while the North is set up as a provocateur using the Abolitionist movement as a tool to tear down the Peaceable Kingdom that is Dixie; in Part Two, raging and triumphant Abolitionists and carpetbaggers complete their quest of raiding the plantation “lifestyle” for no other purpose than greed.
In perhaps the most bizarre twist to the depiction, Griffiths has mulatto Thomas Lynch – played as a kind of blackfaced “supremacist” who makes Malcolm X seem like Michael Jackson by comparison – set mobs (Lynch mobs – get it?) on local whites throughout the Carolinas, and to beat them down and put them in their rightful place, including, ironically, disenfranchisement of the white right to vote. This outrageous take-over and suppression by Northerners leads to the rise of the rebelling vigilantes who will soon become known as the KKK. What Griffiths ends up pushing, intentionally or not, is the outrageous notion that the white knights of the Ku Klux Klan rose up like the twerking Scots (from whom the Klan claim to derive their esoteric roots – at least, as Griffith paints it) led by kilt-clad Mel Gibson in Braveheart to fight back against black oppression. It’s all rather astonishing really.
The Birth of a Nation was released midway between the beginning of post-Reconstruction in 1865 and the legal establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which as meant to enfranchise millions of African Americans either not allowed to vote outright, or whose voting capacity was often suppressed by obstructions such as poll taxes, threats to employment, literacy issues, and ID snafus. It is now clear that Birth also led to resurgence of a waning KKK, and, consequently, helped lead the country toward many more tears of misery and injustice for African Americans throughout the States, but especially in the South, where voting problems continue to exist.
Griffith’s film was widely panned by “liberal” critics of the day, while at the same time being received radiantly by white Southerners who felt kicked around some by the mandates of Reconstruction. It is tempting to write this film off as a cinematic and political anomaly (Griffiths himself was said to be shocked by Birth’s polarizing effects), and to assume that it is not a true picture of the national psyche. And yet it is equally tempting to see the Pax Antebellum, with its devotion to slaving, as deeply emblematic of the kind of exploitative capitalism contemporary American neoliberals still inflict upon the many plantation states of the developing world, and one sees, without looking too hard, a suggestion in the easy rise of the KKK of a tendency – even a preference – for fixing things abroad with a kind of vigilantism and fiery symbolism. For what is the War on Terror in many respects if not a turn to extrajudicial white sheets and the burning crosses of Pax Americana?
Which leads to an especially relevant segue, as 2015 is also the centenary of the birth of blues goddess Billie Holiday, who sang the brooding and literally haunting “Strange Fruit,” which lyrically conjures up the long legacy of Deep South lynchings that were so much part of Holiday’s consciousness. It’s a good time, too, to reflect on the tragedy that was Holiday’s life – the drug addiction, the exploitation by agents – and to lament how she was pursued to her dying day, like a character out of Les Miserables, by police and federal agents who saw her black ballads as a threat to domestic order.
I started out by recalling William Holden reflecting on a wasted life from the bottom of a pool. But it’s fitting to end this piece by alluding to the tragic end of Rodney King in 2012. A strong swimmer, he was discovered droned at the bottom of his backyard pool. A neighbor reported to the media that shortly before he splashed in he had been sobbing with a voice “sad and crying.” King had once famously tearfully asked his fellow Americans on TV, “Can’t we all just get along?” following his beating by police and the subsequent rioting the video release of the beating provoked. Clearly, his death, and the events in America since, such as in Ferguson, suggest that the answer is decidedly NO. Not really. Not for long.
In this light, it may have been Griffith’s next film – Intolerance – that more powerfully suggests what a post-natal America has grown up to embody.