This year’s rancorous debate over statues honoring Confederate generals left me wondering whether its loudest participants could benefit from bifocals.
Before I explain, let me make my own feelings about the controversy clear. I’m in favor of the statues being removed from public view and put on display in museums or any exhibits dealing with the Civil War. My reasons are simple and hardly novel: these leaders were fighting in a bad cause. But I also refuse to label all defenders of Confederate statues racist, even though some of the statues were erected in the 1950s, apparently to defy the expanding desegregation movement. The southern military tradition contributes to the hero worship that such displays, alas, were meant to evoke, and we should bear in mind that many southerners are descendants of Confederate veterans. I want the defenders to lose the debate but I don’t want their motives impugned. The politicians who erected the memorials and now defend them (as well as that ultimate avatar of nihilism, Donald Trump) may be acting malignly, but some defenders may be without malice in their veneration. (I can’t believe that the creeps who marched in Charlottesville were interested in the statues rather than in seizing an opportunity to express hate.) So, by wishing that all participants in the debate would acquire intellectual bifocals, I’m simply hoping that the controversy might be drained of rancor. Wearing bifocals, you have a choice: see clearly up-close, or see clearly faraway, depending on what you want to look at. But to avoid hysteria and self-righteousness, we have to use both halves of the lens before forming an opinion.
These thoughts are rooted in my experience as a longtime movie critic. Intellectual bifocals are needed when assessing how many of the most famous movies handle the issue of race. Even when it’s easy to spot the racism that poisons parts of them, the more interesting and pertinent question is what makes some of these films engrossing even now. To avoid addressing this not only denies the multifarious ways works of art and entertainment affect us. It also ignores the complexity of viewers who respond to such compelling if questionable works. The poison and the allure aren’t always easily distinguishable; the ingredients are often mingled.
When D.W. Griffith’s silent epic The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, it was immediately clear that an extraordinary advance had been achieved in handling lengthy narrative on film. Griffith, by enforcing restraint upon actors accustomed to pitching their emotions to the back rows of a playhouse, made movie audiences, perhaps for the first time, read the unspoken thoughts of the characters. His cameraman, Billy Bitzer, captured the elegiac mood of Mathew Brady’s photographs. And, adapting techniques of Dickens and Hardy to the screen, Griffith cross-cut among multiple locales, thus increasing the dramatic pressure that action confined to one set could not produce.
Many audiences, especially southern white audiences only a generation removed from the Confederacy (as was Griffith, whose father was literally a Kentucky Colonel), felt that the epic had an additional historical virtue: it justified a widespread notion that the post-war federal efforts to change the South’s political structure was a villainous mistake, and that Jim Crow was a fine remedy.
Black audiences were repelled. They saw clearly that the movie was profoundly racist. It portrayed freed slaves (played by white actors in blackface) as barely anthropomorphized apes—sex-mad, vindictive, shiftless, incapable of meaningful politics. The only exceptions were a few ex-slaves (designated by the title cards as “faithful souls”) who help their former masters resist Reconstruction. The NAACP and other groups rightly ignored Birth’s artistic advances and concentrated on the dehumanization.