DuVernay was pushed out of contention by a now-familiar collection of competitive entries. In the 2015 Awards Season, seemingly every forum for recognizing film achievement has exhibited preference to the the same collection of films, while the film-attending public, by a near consensus, seem far more inspired and moved by Selma. Let’s consider Selma’s competition, item by item.
1.) The DGA winning Birdman: A white actor struggles with losing the fame that he possessed in the role of a popular superhero.
2.) The Imitation Game: A brilliant English mathematician invents a device to decipher the hidden code of wartime enemies.
3.) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson, perhaps the whitest director ever, tells the story of history’s WASP-iest prison break.
4.) Boyhood: A white child grows into a white adult.
5.) American Sniper: A film that in the context of the forthcoming discussion merits no further explanation.If these plot summations seem unfairly reductive, perhaps I can offer a small piece of trivia as an excuse for my manipulative presentation.
The very first Directors Guild Association Award was presented to D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation. The award, an “Honorary Life Member” award, was presented to Griffith in 1938, 23 years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation.
We have to keep talking about it. Perhaps it’s more forgivable to beat dead horses when said horses once delivered the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic cavalry to save America from a grotesquely racist projection of an imagined enemy in one of the most radical and revolting historical fantasies ever allowed on film or any format. After an entire century, it’s a tiredly familiar conversation but one that the film culture must not stop having.
Birth of a Nation presents the most problematic intersection in the road map of film history. Hailed by many as Hollywood’s “first big blockbuster,” Birth of a Nation opened in Los Angeles on February 8th, 1915 to great fanfare. Audiences were stunned by the innovation exhibited in Griffith’s use of multiple cameras and his editing of shots in a way that made film feel more alive than it had before. Indeed, it is impossible today to talk about film technique and cinema culture without introducing information that is directly traceable to the inventiveness in and impact of Griffith’s film. The reason this necessary historical placement is a problem lies in the film’s storyline and the ways in which that storyline is approached. Birth of a Nation is a distorted account of the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. The film showcases freed slaves (played by actors in blackface) as being unruly, uncivilized criminals looking to tear apart the white culture and marry white white women. The final act of the film actually has the KKK swoop into town and save the day.
This conflicting crux of unabashed racism and invented film technique creates a slippery spot for many film professors today. Many instructors refuse to show the film while others present the film while passively noting that it is a horrid American history text that should not be considered to have truth or value. I’d like to suggest that, in a figurative measure, Birth of a Nation is overflowing with historical truth and value.
Roughly 35 years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation and two years after Griffith won the first DGA, Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, becoming the first black Oscar winner in history. When her name was announced, Hattie McDaniel’s approach to the stage was longer than that of all of her winning peers that evening because Hattie McDaniel had been seated at a segregated table in the back of the room.
In 2002, Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Monster’s Ball. Her now infamous dramatic reaction to the received honor has been publicly celebrated, but I’m certain I’m not the only one who has heard the reaction scrutinized in equal measure within private circles. To give contextual weight to Ms. Berry’s overwhelming emotion, it should be pointed out that her victory marked the moment in which the Oscars finally had a historical black winner in every major acting category (Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for Lilies in the Field and Louis Gossett, Jr. won Best Supporting Actor for his role in An Officer and a Gentleman). This circle was finally complete, 87 years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation and 52 years after McDaniel’s milestone win.
Some may point to the 2014 Best Picture Oscar Winner 12 Years a Slave as evidence of a turning trend, but what does that victory symbolize, really? Steve McQueen’s slave drama is undeniably ambitious in aesthetic and artistic construction and admirable in its application of McQueen’s trademark “unflinching” approach to the historical subject. But in a narrative analysis, the film is so singular in approach and narrow in ambition, that it removes any greater systemic evaluation. There is no concern for the historical path that lead to slavery and even less for the residual influence of slavery on the contemporary, here-and-now culture. Unlike DuVernay’s biopic, which positions itself firmly into the present both incidentally (Selma’s coinciding with America’s current race-rooted protests is a thematically fruitful coincidence) and intentionally (the decision to pair the credits with lyrics alluding to Ferguson is an outstanding one), McQueen’s central narrative assertion is a simple “Slavery was horrible.” Any narratively-focused rebuttal to McQueen’s work is limited to “No it wasn’t that bad” and it’s hard to imagine any person of any level of intelligence taking that counter-position. So, I hope I can be forgiven when I say the Academy’s presentation of Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave wasn’t that bold of a progressive step.
But, in fairness, I should concede that at least the Academy took that step, however small. The step the Academy didn’t take when Do The Right Thing wasn’t even in consideration as the inferior Driving Miss Daisy took Best Picture and Oliver Stone took Best Director for his equally inferior Born on the Fourth of July (perhaps the most telling anecdote available about Hollywood race perspective). Or the step that was decidedly abandoned when the Academy snubbed Hoop Dreams. Or maybe the step they thought they were taking when Crash upset Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture.
Today, as the most revered of all film awards ceremonies, the Oscars serve as the film industry’s most prestigious, self-aggrandizing, and loudest platform. And yet, the Academy never seems in a hurry to correct or even address the industry’s past mistakes.
One hundred years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation, there still hasn’t been a single black winner of the Best Director Oscar. One hundred years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation, the removal of Amy Pascal from her Executive position at Sony means that the major film studios are now run predominately by white males. Exactly one hundred years after the premiere of Birth of a Nation, American Sniper, a blunt non-examination of the Iraq conflict, became the second most profitable Rated R film of all time (incidentally, in rank behind Passion of the Christ, wherein known bigot Mel Gibson cast a white man as Jesus). The success of Clint Eastwood’s latest film suggests that willfully naive, uncurious whitewashing is the standard, preferred, and continuing method with which film still does and will continue to investigate complex chapters of history, chapters in which we might benefit from accepting our errors.
So, the question stands: To whom does Birth of a Nation belong? Anyone looking backward for the answer is searching in the wrong direction.
I want to be clear here. In no way am I suggesting that we discard Birth of a Nation as a historic artifact. Art provides a culture with the opportunity to take ownership of all of its chapters: the good, the bad, and this, the very ugly. To maintain accountability and civility, it is necessary for a society to preserve all of its art. The mistake we, the film culture and the American people, too often make is that of categorizing Birth of a Nation and its exhibited sentiments as relics belonging to a separate past, one disconnected from our present. Just as our country’s current approach to mass labor is still very much informed by structures built to accommodate institutional slavery, and just as the racist metropolitan zoning, planning, and unregulated rental practices of the mid-20th century gathered black residents into communities that we now call “city ghettos,” the poison injected from the maliciously racist bite of Birth of a Nation still runs through the veins of the Hollywood body. The meanest, most vile forms of human nature, that which some might be inclined to call “evil,” have far-reaching roots and ever-extending branches, and the branches of systemic Hollywood racism continue to scratch the lens. To pretend that these blemishes are anything else is a gross injustice to this country and its citizens.
In many ways, it’s an issue rooted in concerns of language. Why are we so rushed to push Birth of a Nation into the past tense? Are we equally inclined to describe Mark Twain novels and the U.S. Constitution as belonging to another era, or do we claim those works as permanent fixtures and continual influences on the American way of life? And most importantly, why is it that even the most progressive of us allow ourselves to think of Ava DuVernay’s Selma as being “brave” or “audacious,” when it’s really just an even, straightforward look at historical and contemporary truth? If Birth of a Nation belongs to the past, then, in today’s conversations about racism in the film industry, why is plain old honesty thought to be courageous?