Friday, May 03, 2013

Film Follies of 1915

A co-worker recently expressed interest in seeing the entire list of the 100 greatest movies of all time as selected by the American Film Institute. I guess because I'm one of the more sophisticated (old), erudite (elderly), experienced (damn near eligible for the senior discount at Golden Corral) and venerable ("hey, what was life like before they invented television?") people in the office, he asked me about some of the movies on the list. Shamefully, while I'm familiar with almost every one, I've probably only sat down and actually watched about a third of them.
One that he asked about was #44 on the list, "The Birth of a Nation".
"Ooh. That one's very controversial."
"I'm not sure. It's one of the many I haven't seen. Racism, I think."
"Well, it's one of the older movies on the list. It's a silent film that came out in 1915."
"That's true. Society has changed a lot since then. It's possible that what we find offensive now was just the way things were back then."

We took a look on line and learned some stuff. For instance, here's the movie's poster. 

Oh my, a masked warrior on horseback! What a classic icon of rugged American heroism. Not unlike...

But wait a minute; go back to the first one. What's it say down there in the corner...?
Oh shit!
Our further research revealed that in spite of it being a commercial success and the first motion picture to be screened at the White House (under President Woodrow Wilson), it was the subject of protests and banned in several cities because of its portrayal of black men (played by white actors in black face make-up) as ignorant, savage brutes as well as other general racist fucked-upedness (the real-life Ku Klux Klan used it as a recruiting tool and it was blamed/credited for a resurgence in Klan activity at the time). And that was in 1915! Think about that. You really have to question how offensive something had to be to get people to protest racism back in 1915: "Look, we're down with not letting them use our bathrooms or vote or date white women or play baseball or eat in restaurants or ride public transportation or stay in hotels or have access to good paying jobs, medical care and education. That all makes perfect, reasonable sense to us because it's 1915 and we're not even ready to treat the Irish or Italians like human beings. But Jesus, this! There's stuff that happens in this movie that just crosses the line. I mean, we're all racists here but come on!"

Still, it's on the AFI list. There must be some merit to it. Maybe just getting a 190 minute movie made in 1915 qualifies. At any rate, I suggested he start with "Tootsie".

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