THE DEMONSTRATORS who prevented the showing of Birth of a Nation Saturday night at Adams House erred seriously. By using physical intimidation to stop the presentation, they ironically aligned themselves briefly with other, repressive forces that use strong-arm tactics to prevent free expression. This arrogant censorship contradicts basic principles espoused by the demonstrators, and has no place at Harvard or in any free community.
It is also ironic that the protest has accomplished the opposite of what the demonstrators intended. Discussion of racism in D.W. Griffiths' film, at Harvard and in Third World countries--the announced purpose of the action at Adams House--has been eclipsed by widespread questioning of the methods the protesters used.
This is particularly unfortunate because much of what the demonstrating Organization for the Solidarity of Third World Students had to say about the film has merit. Opponents of racism have been voicing similar criticisms since the movie's release in 1915.
The Adams House film society displayed insensitivity by presenting the film in a forum--a series on early screen classics--that made a political discussion of this political film awkward. The offer that film society leaders made to let a spokesman for the demonstrators speak before the showing was a good-faith attempt to ease differences--but as William J. Fletcher Jr. '76, a protest organizer, observed, "To go in front of an audience that is prepared for entertainment and to talk about politics would cause problems." The brief acknowledgement by a film society leader of the movie's blatantly racist content, presented before the uneventful Friday night showing, was insufficient to dispel the odor of some of the racial myths unabashedly portrayed.
But the demonstrators displayed a more serious insensitivity by assuming that the audience was not sophisticated enough to understand the movie in its proper context. A few cinema buffs conceivably could have been engrossed in the technical innovations, but, without doubt, leaflets, picketing, or a publicized boycott would have jarred even the most myopic D.W. Griffith fans, and given the screening a political meaning.
WHILE PRESERVATION of First Amendment rights may allow racial pseudo-scientists--both dead and alive--to briefly gain an audience, unwavering protection of free speech has served the cause of racial justice far more than hurt it. Both the demonstrators and D.W. Griffith could have had their say Saturday night, and there is no doubt which side would have won the audience.
As it is, serious discussion of the racism in Birth of a Nation--the demonstration's goal--has been temporarily placed aside. A viewing of the movie could only have encouraged it. There was no danger presented by the audience--no one was about to rush out at the film's conclusion to smash school bus windows with ax handles. Instead of analysis, there was a miscalculated victory chant for the demonstrators, and bitterness for those who had come to see the movie.
The most encouraging result of the discussions that followed the demonstration is the willingness of both the protesters and the film society chairmen to present a screening of Birth of a Nation with appropriate political analysis. It is doubtful that there will be any controversy about the movie itself; attacks on the film's content have been uniform in the last 60 years. But whether or not any original analysis emerges, a peaceful showing and reasoned condemnation of Birth of a Nation will do much to wash away the sour taste of Saturday night.
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