Deleting a Film from History

by Scott Knopf
December 22, 2008

If you were given the opportunity to go back in time and delete a film from history, would you?

A couple of weeks ago, Burbanked wrote a great post about Six Days, Seven Nights that asked that same question. Immediately, a specific film came to mind. I would delete The Birth of a Nation! The film makes my stomach turn with its awful depictions of African Americans and its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. Sure of my answer, I began to write this post. Then, like any 80s baby in this situation, I thought of Back to the Future II and how bad things got when Biff turned out rich. Remember when Marty breaks into his house? Next thing he knows, he’s dodging baseball bat swings. What if I deleted Birth of a Nation and suddenly didn’t know my address? Let’s take a careful look at what we’re dealing with here.

Birth of a Nation was a huge success when it was released in 1915. It pulled in over 10 million dollars (those were 1915 dollars!) worldwide. Its success turned filmmaker D.W. Griffith into a household name (especially if your home was filled with racist Klansmen with a love for cinema) and secured him a place in film history. Besides the financial success, it was also the first film screened at the White House and is credited as the driving force behind the 1920s Klan revival.

From a technical standpoint, many techniques not widely known at the time including iris shots and extreme closeups were used by Griffith. Any film historian knows that Griffith merely popularized them but invented almost none of them. Borrowed from other short silent films of the time, Griffith was the first to bring them all together into one film. Also, in a world of shorts, Nation was a twelve-reel film with a 190 minute running time (at 16 frames-per-second). Griffith is credited with establishing the 90+ minute standard for feature-length productions. Technically speaking, Nation is an extremely impressive film. Filmmakers used Nation as a movie-making model. The precedents set by Griffith in 1915 are still in full effect today. So what would movies today be like if Nation never existed? What would America be like if Nation never existed?

We know the effects on both now. The Ku Klux Klan had between four and five million members in the Unites States within the years following Nation’s release. The diminishing organization saw a second rise thanks to the film. Riots broke out in the cities that screened Griffith’s groundbreaking project. Black filmmakers struggled to have a voice in a time where they were silenced cinematic ally. Oscar Micheaux and John W. Noble both directed films in response to Nation (Within Our Gates and The Birth of a Race, respectively) and the NAACP used the film as an opportunity to educate people on the real events that took place during Civil War times. But………the Klan was back.

Film history was forever changed by Nation too. This 190-minute movie filled with influences reaching from Griffith’s own backyard to other countries across the world set the new standards for filmmaking. Like with the switch to sound or fully-colored productions, everything American filmmakers knew about their craft was changing. But would these changes have still been made if Nation hadn’t done it first? Clearly, it would have. Film was already advancing technically in radical ways across America and Europe. That’s where Griffith got his influences. If cinema was already heading in this direction, with multi-reel films being produced in multiple countries, then why wouldn’t one of them be the first breakthrough smash-hit? People blame Jaws for forming Hollywood’s “blockbuster” model but if the shark had worked like Spielberg wanted it to and the film had flopped, why wouldn’t Star Wars have created the blockbuster four years later?

In short, Nation was the first to push mainstream cinema towards feature-length films, and arguably the first to make film “mainstream” in the first place,” but that doesn’t mean that no one else would have done it. Who knows, maybe Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) would have been the one to study in our Film History courses? Or Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). What I’m trying to say is that the changes made to cinema were inevitable. They were going to happen with or without a film glorifying and inspiring the revival of one of the ugliest, most vile organizations in the country’s history. In my opinion, any film that brings the Klan back should be deleted from history even if it means that the next time I think I’m home, a protective black man turns my face into a Rawlings baseball for trespassing.

WEBMASTER'S COMMENTS: I just have to throw my two cents worth into this article.
To Scott and the rest...history is history. Just because our attitudes change with time does not mean we can arbitrarily change history to accomadate our beliefs of the present. What do we do next eliminate all World War two films because the enemies then are our friends today and we do not call Japanese and Germans, Nips and Krauts? We do not eliminate history we learn from it. It just seems that the idea of political correctness causes the young of today to alter the past. They just would rather not learn history, it seems, so they will someday pay the price. LEAVE HISTORY ALONE IN ALL IT'S FORMS.

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