“The nation [the founders] envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites.” – Tim Wise
When The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) was released 97 years ago in 1915, it was heralded for its technical innovations and was the first film screened at the White House. However, many – including the NAACP – protested BOAN’s degrading black stereotypes, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and its racist propaganda dressed up as historical representation. Despite its controversies, BOAN is a valuable part of my film collection. It is a movie that I watch and refer to regularly. The hegemonic worldview expressed in BOAN is still very relevant, unfortunately, and offers great insights about the ongoing pervasiveness of American racism, even more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
BOAN dramatizes the Civil War and its consequences from the perspectives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. Life in the South before the war was depicted as idyllic. Whites reigned supreme while blacks were carefree and content in their subservient roles. After the war, however, the defeated Southerners fell under the rule of “carpetbaggers.” They also found themselves vulnerable to the newly freed slaves who outnumbered them, had voting rights, violent tendencies and the audacity to pursue white women. The Southerners responded to this threat to their existence by forming an underground vigilante group to restore “order” to the South, and hence the Ku Klux Klan was born.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
Jefferson’s quote reflects the inconsistencies on which this nation was founded – contradictions that have yet to be meaningfully recognized. On the one hand, this slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged the “injuries” inflicted on blacks due to racial discrimination. On the other hand, however, Jefferson rationalized that it was in America’s best interest to deny blacks equal rights and protections under the Constitution in order to avoid retaliation and anarchy.
“I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that [President Obama] had.” – Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
As if taking a cue from Jefferson, BOAN depicted the newly emancipated blacks as irresponsible, brutal and out of control. The abuse of their newly acquired political power left whites disenfranchised and helpless to do anything about it. Left to their own devices, blacks were well on their way to taking over the nation. That is until the Ku Klux Klan rode in and saved America. Using intimidation, coercion and violence to oppress blacks, the Klan’s methods were deemed necessary to preserve the nation. The end justified the means. Could this be why an unarmed man can be shot 41 times and his murderers set free? Perhaps this explains why a man who was outnumbered and beaten savagely on videotape was perceived as the aggressor. Is this why Trayvon Martin, armed only with a cell phone, Skittles and ice tea, was shot to death and his assailant, George Zimmerman, has so far avoided murder charges by claiming self-defense? Adding insult to injury, it has been reported Zimmerman “suffers” from PTSD – as if that’s any comparison to being DEAD.
“It’s time this generation learned the difference between a villain and a hero.” – J. Edgar Hoover
The irony of quoting Hoover on this topic aside, the concept of heroes and villains works well in fiction. In BOAN, the villainous blacks are returned to a submissive position by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s savior status is denoted by the superimposed images of Christ and a Klansman in the final minutes of the film. Therefore, it stands to reason, according to BOAN, that if the Klan is godly, then blacks are the direct opposite. However, in real life using the “good versus evil” rubric to assess others often leads to tragic consequences. Dehumanizing and demonizing one’s opponents and/or those with whom you are unfamiliar results in a delusional sense of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to consider different points of view. Peaceful resolutions are replaced by ongoing conflict and domination.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you.” – Chris Rock
America likes to see itself as the land of freedom, justice and opportunity – a harmonious, multi-cultural melting pot. That is not my reality though I yearn for that ideal. In my America, racial discrimination and stereotyping are constant companions. Racism does not always involve physical violence, although its emotional toll can be just as destructive over time. Its more subtle forms include low expectations, backhanded compliments and hasty assumptions.
History informs me that demanding Zimmerman’s arrest is not enough. Based on the way this case has been handled so far and the efforts to criminalize Martin, the state of Florida is incapable of conducting a fair trial. This case must be prosecuted on the federal level. There also needs to be a major shake-up in the Sanford Police Department. Resignations/terminations are not sufficient. The conduct of the police and state attorney’s office should be thoroughly investigated. Negligent law enforcement officers must be prosecuted and their pensions should be revoked. Maybe then they will value the rights of everyone they are supposed to “serve and protect.” Finally, looking to the future, now is the time to push for legislation about racial profiling with specific guidelines and consequences applicable to both law enforcement officials and civilians.
Frank Costello: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – The Departed
The Ku Klux Klan’s hoods versus Trayvon Martin’s hoodie – who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Whether it’s on the screen in BOAN or in real life, the designation of heroes and villains is not absolute. There are many shades of gray. The real dilemma is not in the “hero” and “villain” designations; it is in the desire to categorize them in the first place. After all, the concept of heroes and villains is relative. Much depends on which end of the proverbial loaded gun you find yourself on.
What will it take for this nation to be reborn?
TO BE CONCLUDED
“The Rebirth of a Nation – Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation”
Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
Though I have attended numerous programs honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including panel discussions, political forums, dramatic presentations and church services, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis remains my favorite way to remember him. I used to look forward to watching this documentary on the local PBS station every year. Due to issues with the King estate, however, the broadcast rights became unavailable and the film disappeared. Fortunately, the uncut, 185-minute version is screened occasionally – especially around the King Holiday and now throughout Black History Month.
King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis chronicles Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to his assassination in 1968. Watching the nonviolent protests that I had previously only heard and read about, I couldn’t and still cannot even begin to imagine the courage, commitment and self-control of those – many whose names we will never know – who willingly faced racial hostility in the forms of verbal and physical assaults, incarceration and sometimes death. Recalling those warriors for justice and their sacrifices keeps in perspective how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
The documentary also offers glimpses of Dr. King not usually seen by the general public. Insightful moments include Dr. King playfully saying, “Give me some sugar,” as he hugged a young admirer, and his humorous account of Rev. Abernathy praying with his eyes open during a riotous confrontation in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is particularly poignant to see Dr. King celebrate what would be his final birthday.
Whether it’s your first time or if it has been a long while, I strongly recommend that you see King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis. If the film is not being shown in your area, the good news is that it is now available for purchase at http://afilmedrecord.com. However you choose to view the film, it is well worth the extra effort.
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”
So begins one of the greatest films ever made, and my personal favorite, The Godfather. There are so many things to love about this movie. Puzo’s writing. Coppola’s interpretation. The sage counsel: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” I could go on and on. Nevertheless, if I had to choose the one thing that makes The Godfather a timeless classic, it would be how it dramatizes the double standards that exist within such cherished American institutions as the criminal justice system, politics, news and entertainment media, and organized religion.
American Ideal: The criminal justice system entitles all citizens to equal protection under the law regardless of race, creed or color.
“I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison – suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” –Amerigo Bonasera
Protection under the law is neither equal nor color-blind. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice, the rate of imprisonment for black males is 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males. Contributing factors include the ability to pay for high quality legal services and discrimination in prosecution, the rendering of verdicts and sentencing based on race and class. Unfortunately, the ironically named Amerigo Bonasera learned this lesson the hard way. Despite assimilating and defining himself as a “good American,” in the eyes of the court, Amerigo’s rights and personhood as an Italian immigrant and those of his daughter were deemed less valuable than those of the two white teens who brutalized her.
American Ideal: The police serve and protect law-abiding citizens and enforce the law.
“What’s the Turk paying you to set up my father, Captain?” – Michael Corleone
Indeed, there are corrupt police officers who abuse the law by participating in illegal activities for financial gain. There are also police officers who sometimes perceive criminality where there is none based on their limited perceptions and prejudices. As a result, law-abiding citizens have been assaulted and even killed. Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight to this injustice. Recently a Texas jury ruled in favor of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man on New Year’s Eve, in front of his parents, after mistakenly assuming the man was driving a stolen car. Although Michael was a war hero and still a law-abiding citizen at this point in the story, the above inquiry was answered with a jaw-breaking punch and he was almost arrested. In this instance, “serve and protect” was reserved for mafia-connected drug dealers.
American Ideal: As elected representatives, politicians serve in the best interest of those they represent.
Michael: “My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.”
Kay: “You know how naive you sound?”
Kay: “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”
Michael: “Oh, who’s being naïve, Kay?”
Some politicians put the interests of sponsors, lobbyists and corporations ahead of the needs of their constituents. These politicians set their priorities based on the financial benefits, be it from industries, such as oil and health care, or deep-pocketed individuals. Vito had quite a few politicians and judges on his payroll, which was evident by the gifts sent to his daughter on her wedding day and his assignment for the “Jew congressman in another district.”
American Ideal: The news is presented truthfully and objectively.
“That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.” – Michael Corleone
The integrity of the news is often compromised by subjective reporting, propaganda and personal agendas. Public opinion is frequently manipulated by the suppression of information and contrasting viewpoints. The Corleone Family, through their contacts, reframed the news coverage of the police captain’s murder to shift the public’s attention from the policeman’s murder to police corruption.
American Ideal: Hollywood movies are harmless entertainment with fair and realistic portrayals of diverse characters.
Jack Woltz: “Johnny Fontane will never get that movie! I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!”
Tom Hagen: “I’m German-Irish.”
Jack Woltz: “Well, let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend…”
Movies made within the Hollywood film industry sometimes reflect narrow worldviews. This often results in racial stereotypes and perpetuates a cycle of intolerance that is very harmful. The Jack Woltz character offers insights regarding this – from the racial slurs in his interaction with Tom to his life at home where his black servants are in the background, barely noticeable and insignificant. One could reasonably conclude that black characters and possibly other minorities in Woltz’s movies would be one-dimensional and insignificant to the plot. Ironically, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Brando stirred up more controversy in 1996 when he described Hollywood as being “run by Jews.” He went on to accuse those in charge of disparaging other racial groups. After much criticism and backlash, Brando apologized for his comments.
American Ideal: Those who observe and practice religious rituals lead godly lives.
“But I’m gonna wait – after the baptism. I’ve decided to be godfather to Connie’s baby. And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia – all of the heads of the Five Families.” – Michael Corleone
Participating in religious rituals and attending church does not automatically indicate godliness and/or morality. Members of the clergy have been accused of stealing money, committing adultery, substance abuse, sexual molestation and domestic violence. For Michael, agreeing to be godfather for his nephew was not done out of love for his sister, it was a business transaction. Michael used his nephew’s baptism as a cover while the heads of the five families were murdered per his orders. This scene delivers one of the most effective montages in cinema history and establishes Michael’s cold-bloodedness, his point of no return. [A more in-depth analysis of Michael Corleone and his transformation from college-educated war hero to ruthless mafia don will follow at a later date.]
In spite of its imperfections, I still believe in America. I believe in the American ideals of freedom, truth and justice. While it’s true that The Godfather sheds light on some of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, accepting reality is a step in the right direction towards eventually achieving those ideals. Like Michael said to Vito, “We’ll get there…” One day and one person at a time, that is.