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Birth of a Nation and Racism

By Christopher B. Daly

One Saturday night back in October about 50 students--mostly black, all angry--prevented a House film society from showing its scheduled movie. Their actions had deep implications for almost everyone at Harvard who reads the papers--they refused to allow a showing of D. W. Griffith's racist film classic. "Birth of a Nation" and thus forced a debate of some very difficult issues racism, freedom of speech and the politics of art.

The students, members of the Organization for the Solidarity of Third World Students, said they objected specifically to Griffith's patronizing attitude toward blacks under Reconstruction and his glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, arguing that by presenting a racist film as entertainment the Adams House film society at least tacitly sanctioned the film's racism. They said the film and others like it should only be shown in a proper forum, one that would allow for an explanation of the history of the period and the film as well as a discussion of the issues of racism and freedom of expression.

Curiously, though, the students who blocked the showing did not provide that kind of discussion themselves. They explained at the time that they hadn't precisely because the film had been presented as entertainment, leaving them only the untenable option of giving a political lecture to a Saturday night film audience--hardly an appropriate forum. William J. Fletcher '76, one of the protest's organizers, said the day after. "To go in front of an audience that is prepared for entertainment and to talk about politics would cause problems."

"Birth of a Nation" had been shown the night before without any objections but with an apology from Alan J. Bozer '75, co-chairman of the Adams House film society, to anyone who might be insulted by the film. Bozer recommended "Birth of a Nation" to the audience as a film classic. "Birth of a Nation," released in 1915, marked a great leap forward for the fledgling film industry, introducing moving cameras, night filming and a musical score. But even at the time it was bitterly criticized (by the NAACP and by President Emeritus Charles William Eliot among others) for its racist content.

Bozer made another apology to the audience Saturday night--this time for the disruption. The film society--and a lot of other people in the University--seemed to feel that stopping the film was a serious violation of freedom of expression and that any film-goer would be discriminating enough to see the racist elements in the film--especially a Harvard audience. Bozer said later he feels, "the common man in America doesn't really need a lot of background information for judging the film; we don't give him enough credit. The film can stand on its own merits."

By the end of that week, though, the film society had agreed to the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of Afro-American Students (Afro) demand that the film be shown only with a speaker qualified to discuss the historical and political significance of the film and with a discussion period afterward. Afro President Patsy Fath Davis '76 released a statement saying that the society objected to the showing of a racist film as entertainment but said it "recognizes its educational value and feels that a setting in which the nature of the dispute is presented will facilitate the fullest possible understanding of the film."

A little more than a month later, the Adams House film society did show "Birth of a Nation," this time at the Science Center and this time with a presentation by professor William Scott, visiting lecturer on Afro-American Studies and chairmen of the Black Studies Program at Wellesley College. A crowd of about 135 listened to Scott, watched the film, and then left.

But the issue remains: does anyone have the right to prevent the circulation of ideas when these ideas are recognized as dangerous and destructive? In many ways, the real significance of the "Birth of a Nation" crisis was the split it forced between liberals and radicals. The liberals argue that freedom of speech is an absolute principle and that the tactics of the protesters amounted to repression, while the blacks who stopped the film and those who agreed with them argue that the act of presenting the film must be seen in its "proper historical context" and that the protesters' actions do not compare at all with state totalitarianism.

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