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'Birth of a Nation' is great, but not good


FOR OVER A MONTH now, we've heard the litany of wailing and whining emanating from those who are livid that "The Birth of a Nation" was included on the American Film Institute's list of "100 Greatest American Films."

"How dare they?" has been the typical response. The response is understandable. "Birth of a Nation" is probably the most racist film ever made. It ruthlessly stereotypes blacks, presents a distorted view of the Reconstruction era and suggests that the hang-'em-high types in the Ku Klux Klan were not the terrorist vermin they were, but actually heroes.

The film is a monumental embarrassment. But have any of those fuming over the fact that it's No. 44 on the AFI list considered that it might be there in spite of, not because of, its subject matter?

D. W. Griffith, the director of "Birth of a Nation," introduced several new film techniques that are still used today. Students taking a filmmaking course will probably be required to view it, as I had to in such a course at Towson State University in the early 1980s. Some of the white students cringed as they watched. Others said they were embarrassed by its racism. But the film's racism does not negate its status as a milestone in filmmaking.

"It is possible for two things to be true at the same time," is how Sun film critic Ann Hornaday put it.

But citing "Birth of a Nation" as a great film smacks of some sinister anti-black plot, if you listen to those who condemn the AFI decision. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" came in at No. 49 on the AFI list. I haven't heard Jews hinting at an anti-Semitic plot because Walt Disney, the film's producer, was a driveling anti-Semite.

These folks who complain about "Birth of a Nation" being on a greatest-films list need to pick up a dictionary. The controversy here turns on the word "greatest." I would advise these folks to go back a decade or so.

Remember a guy named Louis Farrakhan? He came to prominence when he supported Jesse Jackson's presidential candidacy and made remarks that didn't exactly help Jackson. At that time, Farrakhan said that Adolf Hitler was "wickedly great." All hell broke loose. Farrakhan was excoriated nationwide as an anti-Semite.

"That is not an anti-Semitic statement," I said at the time. Farrakhan stated an uncomfortable truth -- as did author William Shirer, who also said Hitler was great -- but a truth nonetheless. He clarified his position in a speech at Morgan State University. I can't remember his exact words, but he chided critics of his statement using phrasing that would go something like this:

"I know you know English. I know you know I know English. And I know you know that the definition of 'great' doesn't necessarily mean 'good.' "

A check of any dictionary would prove Farrakhan right. The American Heritage Dictionary has several definitions of "great." The fifth one says, "remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree or extent." The sixth one says, "of outstanding significance or importance."

The sixth one may apply to both Adolf Hitler and "Birth of a Nation." Let's use another African-American source about the word "great." Historian J. A. Rogers, in the preface of his two-volume work "World's Greatest Men of Color," noted that great men aren't always the most moral.

Rogers was on the mark. Included in his books are Samory Toure, a great military tactician who befuddled the French army but had the nasty habit of murdering and enslaving Africans en masse; Tippu Tib, a notorious slave trader in East Africa; and Jean Jacques Dessalines, a military genius who ran the French out of Haiti but then ordered an islandwide massacre of all whites.

Dessalines is celebrated as the liberator of Haiti but, during that campaign against the French, he had the bone-chilling habit of killing whites on sight. Neither age nor gender mattered to him. Babies as well as women were impaled on stakes. He also slaughtered mulattoes wholesale. When asked why he murdered mulattoes with as much zeal as he dispatched whites, Dessalines allegedly said he couldn't really tell the difference.

A great military man was Dessalines. But he'd be on death row if he were around today.

"Birth of a Nation" is one of two films that unarguably belong on the AFI list. The other is "Citizen Kane," which should be there for pretty much the same reason Griffith's film is: Director Orson Welles used innovative shots in his film that have not been duplicated.

Saying that doesn't mean we have to like "Birth of a Nation." Few Americans of any race do. But this is America -- our multiracial, multiethnic America -- where we cherish, I hope, artistic freedom of expression. And in that dangerous and exciting country called Freedom, there are some punches you just have to roll with.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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