February 25, 2015
Next Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of American movies as the premier pop cultural force on the planet. On March 3, 1915, director D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, an unprecedented epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Appomattox and the assassination of Griffith’s hero, Abraham Lincoln. The first full-length movie to fully integrate the early silent era’s rapid advances in storytelling techniques, Birth of a Nation earned about $60 million at the box office”the equivalent of about $1.4 billion in current dollars, or twice what Avatar garnered in a vastly wealthier and more populous 21st-century America.
Griffith was the son of a Kentucky Confederate colonel; his theme of national reconciliation””The soul of Daniel Webster calling to America: Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever””resounded with the American public during the Great War in Europe. While the Continent shredded itself, America was united and invulnerable, the once divisive issue of sovereignty resolved by the blood spilled a half-century before.
A little-noticed aspect of media power is the ability to decide what constitutes an anniversary and what doesn”t. Thus, the 100th birthday of Birth of a Nation went unmentioned at Sunday’s Academy Awards, despite the movie’s seemingly timely concern with the rape crisis of the late 1860s.
People have a difficult time avoiding either underreaction or overreaction to the threat of rape. It’s enormously shameful not to protect your womenfolk from rape, so dereliction of duty tends to incite fantasy and rage.
In 2014 alone, for example, we saw such bizarre manifestations as Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston leading Florida State, a deep Southern college bankrolled by conservative whites, to the national college football championship while university officials languidly investigated a white coed’s charge that he had raped her; the Rotherham Report finally rendered undeniable the long cover-up of Pakistani pimps raping some 1,400 adolescent English girls; and the Haven Monahan hysteria at the U. of Virginia.
College football coaches face powerful incentives to scrape the bottom of the behavioral barrel harder than their rivals in recruiting large violent men. Not surprisingly, this leads to numerous scandals involving white coeds accusing black athletes of rape, allegations that are frequently made to go away by the local power structure, helped along by the discomfort modern Americans feel over becoming aware of black-on-white rape. It’s unpleasant to notice because it’s so noticeable: according to federal statistics for 2001-2003, there were 15,400 cases of black-on-white single perpetrator rape versus 900 cases of white-on-black rape: a 17 to 1 ratio.
The systemic rapes of young English girls by Pakistani whoremasters were
covered up by politicians and the media for a couple of decades to hamstring anti-immigration arguments.
By contrast, Virginia frat boy and gang rape initiation rite organizer Haven Monahan doesn”t, technically, exist. But he fit the casting sheet for today’s most desired rapist. Similarly, in 2006 a hoax accusing the Duke lacrosse team of raping a black stripper was fabulously popular.
It’s almost as if the dominant worldview these days were less concerned over rape in general than over who is purported to be raping whom.
In Griffith’s retelling of 1865, the assassination of the merciful Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth unleashes the most vengeful elements among the Northern Republicans who attempt to control the South using illiterate black voters. Political power encourages black sexual self-confidence. In the single most hated scene in Birth of a Nation, an ardent freedman chases a beautiful white woman up a mountain until she leaps to her death.
This is almost universally denounced as embodying the myth of the black rapist. In researching this article, I didn”t find a single source who dared to imagine that allegations of interracial rape during Reconstruction weren”t wholly made up. You might think that somebody would cite the Law of Large Numbers as suggesting that it’s not entirely impossible there was some bit of factual basis to all this, but that would be dangerously heretical today.
Oddly, though, American moviegoers in 1915, only 38 years after the end of Reconstruction, seemed to find Griffith’s movie about their parents” era not implausible.
Despite Griffith’s advances in narrative technique, early silent films are relatively alien to us. But David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind from 1939 remains highly watchable, and it’s central to Hollywood’s self-image. For example, Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme“ from Gone With the Wind has been used countless times at Academy Awards ceremonies to conjure up Hollywood grandeur.
But Selznick’s movie reflects the same view of Reconstruction as Griffith’s (although the two men who attack Scarlett are one of those integrated white-black gangs you see more of in the movies than on the street). The saintly Ashley Wilkes then leads an off-screen Ku Klux Klan raid on the shantytown to avenge Scarlett’s honor. In turn, Ashley is saved from angry Yankee occupiers only by Rhett Butler’s wiles.
It’s probably just a matter of time before the use of Steiner’s music on the Oscar broadcast is accused of triggering fears of the KKK and is junked.
Over time, it became a mark of upper-middle-class refinement to not believe white (cough-trash-cough) women who accuse blacks of rape, as in the 1960 bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird.