• 'Birth of a Nation,' 1915 racist classic, on rare view tonight
     | May 02,2006

    ATLANTA One of the most notorious films ever made is getting a rare national broadcast tonight on Turner Classic Movies.

    "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic about the genesis of the Ku Klux Klan, depicts a lynching and two threatened sexual assaults on white women by black men. The major black characters are played by white actors in blackface. The title cards for the three-hour silent film include offensive dialect and the N-word.

    "It's uncomfortable to watch," concedes Charlie Tabesh, senior vice president of programming at the Atlanta-based cable channel. But he said he thought it was essential to show the movie as part of a series he has always wanted to do examining race and Hollywood. The month-long festival starts at 8 p.m. with "Birth" and will end 36 films later on May 30 with Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus."

    "The Birth of a Nation" is available on DVD and videotape, but few programmers would dare to broadcast it. TCM last ran it in 1998, when an American Film Institute survey placed it No. 44 on a list of the 100 greatest American movies. It made the roster because it's the first true movie blockbuster and it pioneered many of the techniques of narrative filmmaking, from close-ups to split screens to cross-cut editing.

    Tabesh wanted to make sure "Birth" was presented in proper context, so he contacted New York film historian Donald Bogle, who has written several books about blacks in Hollywood. In one of them, he called Griffith's film "a legendary classic, a racist masterpiece." Bogle selected the movies in the series and will introduce them in discussions with TCM host Robert Osborne.

    "I thought it was important that we show this," Bogle says. "I've had any number of African-Americans over the years ask me where they could see it. They're just curious."

    Griffith, the Kentucky-born son of a Confederate colonel, vividly dramatized the Southern rationalization of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Based on the Thomas Dixon novel "The Clansman," the film uses a South Carolina family to tell the story of the war and the birth of the Klan "in defense of the Aryan birthright," as one of the title cards puts it.

    It was incendiary stuff from the beginning. After the film premiered in 1915, disturbances broke out in several cities, and eight states banned it. Atlanta clergymen asked authorities not to show it here. It opened that December at the Atlanta Theatre downtown and drew record crowds that sometimes greeted the action with Rebel yells.

    Inspired by the movie, a group of Atlanta men climbed Stone Mountain one night and reconstituted the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK used "Birth" as a recruiting tool for years.

    So did the NAACP. The fledgling civil rights group vigorously protested Griffith's movie.

    "In a way, that film helped define their mission," says Nathan McCall, a lecturer in African-American studies at Emory University.

    McCall shows the movie in a class he teaches on black images in popular culture. Although students invariably recoil, he thinks it's useful to let them see how so many racial stereotypes were first set in celluloid.

    One of those stereotypes figures in the film's most famous scene. Gus, a black soldier, leeringly chases a young white woman through the woods. Rather than submit to his advances, she leaps off a cliff to her death.

    "That's the reason I can't walk down the street in Virginia-Highland without getting looks," says McCall, who is black. "It's that damn Gus." Virginia Highland is a neighborhood in Atlanta.

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