[May 1st marks the 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for Kane and other classic films, and I’d love your thoughts on them all and other films you’d AmericanStudy!]
On how to view and re-view classic, racist works of literature and art.
My first published article included an extended reading of Gone with the Wind, and as a tangential but not unimportant part of that work I talked to a number of colleagues and friends about their experiences with the novel; all of the ones who had experiences to share turned out to be female, but I wasn’t framing it through the lens of gender and don’t think that my point here should be either. As I was focusing my scholarly attention specifically on Mitchell’s portrayals of racial issues, I similarly focused my questions on those issues, but found that in each and every case my interviewees (all smart and thoughtful people prone by both nature and training to analyze most everything) really hadn’t thought much at all about race in the novel. They recognized that it was in there and that, as one would expect from a historical novel set in the pre- and post-Civil War era and written in the 1930s South to boot, it didn’t feature the most enlightened depiction of race. But for all of these readers, that had been a very minor and insignificant aspect of the novel, certainly not one that had interfered with (or even really registered amidst) their enjoyment of its plot threads and character arcs and relationships and action pieces and emotional shifts and everything else that made it the beloved uber-bestseller that it was and remains.
To some degree, I think the same process happened for many decades (at least) with D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The racial politics of Griffith’s film, and particularly its portrait of race in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, are similar to but much more overt and central than those in Mitchell’s novel; to cite one similarity with that difference in degree, Mitchell’s novel features a heroic Ku Klux Klan raid led by one of its male heroes (a scene that none of my interviewees remembered at all), but Griffith’s film climaxes with the KKK riding to save the day and the film’s hero and heroine from marauding African Americans and Northern carpetbaggers (the movie’s original title, derived from the Thomas W. Dixon novel on which it was based, was The Clansman). Yet Griffith’s film was not only the first genuine blockbuster, a hugely successful financial and critical triumph that fundamentally influenced American filmmaking from then on; it remained for many decades a critical darling, and as recently as 1998 was slotted at #44 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years … 100 Movies retrospective. Certainly the film’s landmark technological advancements might merit such continued praise—and certainly recent critical appraisals have grappled with the film’s racial politics much more fully than had my Mitchell interviewees—but nonetheless, for a movie that climaxes with a heroic KKK ride (and that allegedly was used by that organization for recruiting purposes until at least the 1970s) to receive such critical esteem suggests at least a bit of the same kind of cognitive dissonance that Mitchell’s novel evokes.
At the very least, I would argue that no mention of Griffith’s film in any such list should fail to include the two much less successful but interesting and important films that were made in direct response to it. Both were created by African American activists, if in different ways and with very distinct emphases: Booker T. Washington and his assistant Emmett Scott worked with the NAACP to develop the project that would become Birth of a Race (1918), a World War I-set epic featuring two African American brothers who parallel but invert the wartime experiences of Griffith’s protagonists; and novelist Oscar Micheaux created and directed Within Our Gates (1920), a film that focused much more explicitly on issues of race, lynching, miscegenation, and the legacies of slavery and Reconstruction in the South. Neither film was successful in its own era, and both have been almost entirely forgotten since (Gates in fact disappeared until a single print was discovered in Spain in the 1970s), and that’s not without some cause; if we can recognize the technological and artistic achievements of Griffith’s film, we must likewise note that these two are in neither sense impressive. But each nonetheless features images and moments that not only challenge Griffith’s already-iconic ones but also would force American audiences to re-view our sense of our history and identity: a pivotal shot in Race of white and black soldiers heading to Europe together for action in World War I; the surprisingly graphic and brutal lynching sequences in Gates. Films don’t have to make Best Of lists to be well worth our attention.
It will I hope come as no surprise to anybody that my ideal would be not at all to replace Griffith’s film or Mitchell’s novel with one or both of these other films. Instead, I think the best-case scenario would be one in which we engage with all four texts, both to consider how they form a conversation around a number of crucial shared themes (not only race, but also family and war, among others) and to analyze American art and culture and identity in the early 20th century and beyond. There’s no reason to stop engaging with the classics, but we certainly should re-view them with as much context and complexity as possible. Next FilmStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this or other classic films?