On January 16, President Obama screened the MLK biopic “Selma” at the White House, with director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, producer Oprah Winfrey, rapper Common and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga) among the guests in attendance.
The White House’s screening comes nearly 50 years after the landmark march from Selma to Montgomery and the subsequent passing of the Voting Rights Act. But perhaps equally notable is that it has been 100 years since the first screening of a film in the White House, a considerably divergent take on history: D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”
The story goes that after President Woodrow Wilson saw the film, he remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Did he really say this?
No one has ever been able to verify. But like any story worth its salt, the facts got swallowed up in legend, and the words have remained, quoted on most prints of the film. Said or not, the
words are a testament to the colossal impact the film had.
In 1915, audiences were stunned both by its epic reimagining of the Civil War and Reconstruction era as well as the groundbreaking cinematic techniques Griffith used to tell his story. In 2015, it is harder to see the innovations, how Griffith refined and elevated film grammar with his exhilarating use of establishing shots, medium and close shots and cross-cutting (depicting parallel actions happening simultaneously). This is the language of every action sequence you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood blockbuster.
What we notice today is the film’s disgusting racism, which largely went over the heads of audiences in 1915 but smacks us across the face with its grotesque caricatures and blatant falsehoods. It’s a reminder of the film’s enduring nature that even if you haven’t seen all 190 minutes of its epic runtime, its images of white actors hounding after white women in crude blackface and turning the House of Congress into a circus is viscerally familiar. You know of its romanticized depiction of the Klu Klux Klan, the white population’s last and greatest hope against racial integration (Griffith’s most pronounced fear).
To remember these images and their inflammatory effects — whites attacking blacks in various cities and the NAACP fighting for the film’s banning — and then to see the dignified, beautiful images of black activists fighting for their humanity in “Selma,” is to see the spectacular and painful journey that racial progress has had on screen and in America.
We gaze appalled at the lurid application of blackface in the film’s most vile moments (Griffith likely wanted to assure Southern viewers that black actors weren’t engaging this sexually with white women), darkened and ugly and as unflattering as can be. Then we see the lush, textured delicacy with which cinematographer Bradford Young shoots black actors in “Selma,” and we can examine the evolution of the political and aesthetic preoccupations in shooting black skin.
We are able to see how the context around the treatment of black skin has changed. A scene in “Birth” in which the Klan stop black people from voting mirrors a similar sequence in “Selma,” but the tone has shifted from justice to outrage. Indeed, the outrage was always there for all to see, which speaks to the hood over the eyes of most white people at the time that they did not.
Above all else, “Birth” argued that a racially integrated country, particularly one that allowed black people to vote, would bring the nation to ruin. But “Selma” presents that too much of this
nation was willing to wallow in a moral ruin in order to deny black people their rights, a reality given horrific immediacy in the film’s depiction of the infamous attacks on black protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That tragedy and countless others share a direct relationship with the images in “Birth of a Nation.” White supremacy, institutionalized racism, white guilt, America’s slow acceptance of interracial relationships, and the black power movements to come are sewn into the fabric of Griffith’s opus, which has taken on a life of its own to become a lasting and truthful document of America’s great sickness.
“Selma” is not the cure to that sickness, but it is an important step. DuVernay, an African-American female, is repossessing history, not so unlike Griffith, a white Southerner. But she is shifting our perspective away from Hollywood’s whitewashing and white saviors.
Is it perhaps that shift in perspective that most ruffles the brows of her critics? Some historians have taken issue with DuVernay’s treatment of LBJ, portraying him as less central a driving force in Civil Rights than many argue he was at the time. That debate is a story for another time, but perhaps DuVernay was tired of white people being the driving force. Perhaps it was time that the white man was the help for a change. As “Birth of a Nation” clearly proves, it’s been a long time coming.