Have you ever heard of the movie The Birth of a Nation? Me either! After reading Bruce Chadwick’s summary of the movie and watching snip-its from the 1915 film I now know why. It’s a blatantly racist film filled with stereotypes and outright falsehoods. (spoiler alert: the heroes of the movie are the KKK!!) But it was a hit at the time, becoming “one of the most financially successful films of all time.” The success of the movie says a lot about the mind-set of Americans in the early twentieth century. It’s also a testament of how far we have come even as we still have a long ways to go.
Chadwick thinks we should “bury” the movie, relegating it to the dust bin of history. While I think it is a vile movie, I think we can learn from it. It should cause us to reflect on our own willingness to accept stereotypes and myths that, while comforting to some, may be completely false. We are just as vulnerable to mythic narratives that cast ourselves as heroic and others as depraved as were our ancestors.
Today’s racism may not be as overt as it was in the twentieth century, but it is still there. Most of us aren’t racist (or don’t want to be racist), but we are vulnerable to the stereotypes that we are bombarded with in the media. The stereotypes are often subtle but nevertheless very real. Because it is so subtle we are often unaware it. These prejudices play out most visibly in our criminal justice system, where blacks are disproportionately arrested and convicted for crimes that are just as prevalent in white populations. Many of the cops, but not all, are probably being honest when they claim that they aren’t racist. Even well-meaning individuals act in ways that reflect the subtle prejudices that are the result of years of exposure to portrayal of blacks as criminals in the media and movies. A lot of research in psychology backs up this claim.
So, let’s celebrate our progress, but let’s also not forget that we have more work to do.
Read Bruce Chadwick’s history of this movie here: