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‘Birth of a Nation’ — 100 Years On, Debate on Film Endures 

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This 1914 file photo shows a scene from D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" movie depicting Ku Klux Klan members riding horses against soldiers, filmed in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Based on Thomas Dixon's novel, "The Clansman," it was set in the American Civil War. Earlier films often lasted less than an hour and were completed within days. "Birth of a Nation" took six months to produce, had a running time of 195 minutes and employed hundreds of actors. In 1992, the Library of Congress added Griffith's work to the National Film Registry, calling it a "controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece." (AP Photo)

This 1914 file photo shows a scene from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” movie depicting Ku Klux Klan members riding horses against soldiers, filmed in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo)

HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — One hundred years ago this spring, Hollywood came of age in a blaze of wonder and fury.

D.W. Griffith’s three-hour Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation,” was released in April 1915 after a special showing in March at President Woodrow Wilson’s White House. It is widely recognized as a blueprint for the feature-length movie and as a showcase for Griffith’s Tolstoyan command of historical narrative, from the battlefield to the front porch.

But one of the greatest glories in movie history is also one of its lasting shames. Within Griffith’s lovingly assembled images is a story that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, demonized blacks and sealed the misconception that the Reconstruction era in the South was a disastrous experiment in racial equality.

So now, at the film’s centennial, an industry that loves and thrives on honoring its past may allow one of its defining moments to go largely unobserved.

Turner Classic Movies, one of the prime outlets for silent cinema, is uncertain how or whether to mark the anniversary, said Charles Tabesh, senior vice president.

“It’s not just something you can put in the schedule,” he said. TCM has occasionally aired the film, which is in the public domain, but he explained, “We’ve provided an introduction and explained why it’s on, but even with that, we’ve gotten responses ranging from minor complaints to a lot of people who were really upset about it. It’s difficult because for a channel like Turner Classic Movies you can’t just avoid it. It wouldn’t be appropriate to pretend it was never made.”

No film before had so forcefully, or painfully, demonstrated that the big screen could challenge the novel and textbook as a way of interpreting and thinking about the past. James Baldwin would damn it as “an elaborate justification of mass murder.” Eric Foner, a leading Reconstruction historian, said in a recent interview that the film did “irreparable damage to public consciousness and also to race relations.” Fellow scholar Annette Gordon-Reed calls Griffith both a genius and a “lousy historian.”

Over the past quarter century, “Birth of a Nation” has been enshrined and entombed.

In 1992, to much criticism, the Library of Congress added Griffith’s work to the National Film Registry, calling it a “controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece.” For decades, the Directors Guild of America awarded a D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime achievement, but dropped the prize in 1999 to “create a new ultimate honor for film directors that better reflects the sensibilities of our society at this time in our national history.”

In 1998, the American Film Institute listed “Birth of a Nation” at No. 44 on a list of the best 100 American movies. The film does not appear on a 2007 AFI “Best 100” list, which instead features “Intolerance,” Griffith’s atonement for “Birth.” A planned screening in 2004 at a Los Angeles theater was canceled because of protests.

The classroom, the DVD and online are the most likely places to see it now. In 2011, Kino Lorber released a DVD and Blu-Ray edition with a restored print, extensive notes and a brief documentary explaining the film’s context. Kino special projects producer Bret Wood says the company receives occasional complaints for selling the film, but that “Birth of a Nation” is consistently among the most purchased silent movies.

“It’s a difficult thing to do — marketing a cinematic masterpiece that is also hate-mongering propaganda — but that in itself is why the film is so powerful,” Wood wrote in an email. “If it were simply a racist film, it would have faded away long ago. But because ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is such a magnificent film (in terms of cinematic artistry in 1915), the cancerous ideology at its core is all the more toxic, and so we find ourselves continuing to discuss it a full century later.”

Jeanine Basinger, a film historian who teaches at Wesleyan University, says “Birth” is taught in different ways. A history professor might screen excerpts to show how some Americans thought of the Civil War, while a film instructor might focus on the film’s aesthetic achievements.

“In film departments, we aren’t teaching content, we are teaching the medium itself and its development,” Basinger says.

“The Birth of a Nation” is historical drama, but for the director it was something close to emotional autobiography. David Wark Griffith was born in Kentucky in 1875, just a decade after the Civil War ended. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, and Griffith grew up in the early Jim Crow era. Although Kentucky was a border state that did not secede and was relatively unaffected by Reconstruction, Griffith related to the source material for “Birth of a Nation,” Thomas Dixon’s novel and play “The Clansman.”

“Griffith did not question the core assumption of Dixon’s story: that blacks, once the supposedly benevolent bonds of slavery had been overthrown, became violent and threatening to whites, especially women,” says Melvyn Stokes, author of “D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.”

He was a man of the late 19th century mastering the tools of a revolutionary medium of the 20th century — moving images. After several years of acting and script writing, he directed his first movie, in 1908. By 1914, Griffith was among the country’s top directors.

“As he refined and developed his filmmaking art, he became ambitious to do longer, more ‘epic’ films,” Stokes said, noting that Griffith had studied the Italian production “Quo Vadis” and a French production, “Queen Elizabeth.”

“He was also keen to produce works like these based on history, since historical subjects were seen as a means of making motion pictures ‘respectable’ and appealing to the more lucrative, middle-class audience.”

In making “Birth of a Nation,” Griffith wedded mass spectacle and groundbreaking art and helped change forever the role of movies and what they could achieve.

Earlier films often lasted less than an hour and were completed within days. “Birth of a Nation” took six months to produce, had a running time of 195 minutes and employed hundreds of actors. Griffith’s epic also helped popularize such techniques as the panoramic shot, the panning shot and the tinting of the lens. The battlefield scenes, still compelling in their momentum and violence, set the template for countless war movies over the following decades. The soundtrack was among the first to feature a popular theme song.

The film made history before reaching theaters. In March 1915, “Birth of a Nation” became the first moving picture to be screened at the White House, then occupied by Wilson, Thomas Dixon’s former Johns Hopkins University classmate and fellow Southerner.

The White House event resulted in one of film’s most famous blurbs. “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” Wilson was supposed to have commented. Biographer A. Scott Berg is almost certain he never said it.

“The line does not appear for decades — not even in Dixon’s unpublished memoirs,” Berg wrote in an email, adding that Wilson was known for his reactionary views on race. “I suspect that it got cobbled together as civil rights became more of an issue and people looked back on ‘Birth of a Nation,’ seeing it through new and more enlightened eyes. And, as Wilson’s stock in the area of civil rights sank, it became an easy quotation to attribute to him.”

Virtually everything about “Birth of a Nation” was outsized and new. Moviegoers were charged $2 a ticket (around $46 in 2015) at a time when you could see an afternoon of comedy shorts for pennies. The film helped mark the transition from nickelodeons to gilded movie “palaces.” The cast included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman).

In theaters, whites reveled and rampaged. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teen after seeing the movie. The Ku Klux Klan used the film for decades to recruit members.

The NAACP, founded just a few years earlier, demanded that a few especially racist scenes be deleted and despaired over the damage.

“The harm it is doing the colored people cannot be estimated,” wrote the association’s secretary, Mary Childs Nerney. “I hear echoes of it wherever I go and have no doubt that this was in the mind of the people who are producing it. Their profits here are something like $14,000 a day and their expenses about $400.”

His influence acknowledged even by his detractors, Griffith was revered by Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, among others. Leading critics have praised “Birth of a Nation’ on artistic grounds, and even moral grounds. Roger Ebert wrote that Griffith “demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be.” James Agee, mourning Griffith’s death in 1948, wrote: “For all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone…”

The Tennessee-born Agee lamented that criticism of the movie had led to its being restricted, or abridged. “At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does.”

Black filmmakers responded forcefully to “Birth of a Nation,” and across generations. In 1919, Oscar Micheaux made “Within Our Gates,” a blunt portrait of white violence and among the earliest surviving movies by a black director. In 1980, Spike Lee was a film major at New York University when he completed the 20-minute “The Answer,” in which a young black screenwriter is asked by a Hollywood studio to turn out a script for a remake of “Birth of a Nation.”

Paul D. Miller, aka the hip-hop and performance artist DJ Spooky, saw “Birth of a Nation” while attending Bowdoin College and recalled how it echoed in his mind “because of so many of the issues that keep resurfacing in American culture.” In 2004, DJ Spooky premiered “Rebirth of a Nation,” a multimedia stage event and later a film that remixed excerpts from Griffith’s movie with contemporary images, music and commentary.

Miller finds “Birth of a Nation” so influential, technically and aesthetically, he even thought about it while designing his iPad app.

“As much as possible I want to think about mobile media as the inheritors of the cinematic imaginary,” he wrote in an email. “Cell phones, tablets, and other portable media have set the stage for a new kind of multimedia experience. ‘Birth of a Nation’ set the tone for that as well.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Activism

After Wood Street Clearance, Homeless People Stay

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move. 

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Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.
Homeless Oakland Jessie Parker stands on Wood Street in West Oakland on November 10. The city of Oakland had planned to move Parker and dozens of others from this location between November 8 and 10, but residents refused to move and remained on site after the attempted closure operation. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

On the morning of November 8, members of both Oakland’s Encampment Management Team, Public Works, and Police Department came to an area encompassing about 1/5 of a mile from Wood Street and Grand Avenue to Wood Street and 26th Street with the stated goal of clearing the location of homeless people. But after the attempted clearance, homeless people remained in the area.

“The objective was to move as many people as possible,” wrote Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd in an e-mail. “But that could not be accomplished without the full cooperation of the community.”

“You can’t push us back any further than this,” said homeless resident Jessie Parker, a 63-year-old lifelong Oaklander who came to live on Wood Street after being shot in the leg. The injury prevented him from being able to do the physical movement required for the construction and electrical work he had done in the past. On November 4, the city put up pink notices informing him that starting in four days they would force him to vacate the area he’s lived in for about nine years, but he, like dozens of others living in vehicles, tents or makeshift homes along Wood Street, didn’t leave.

Parker’s statement references the fact that Wood Street is one of the westernmost streets in West Oakland. A little further west from where Parker lives is land owned by Caltrans under the 880 overpass where still more homeless people live, as well as a 1.5 acre plot of land belonging to a company called Gamechanger LLC. To the east are businesses and residential areas.

After about two years in delays, Gamechanger agreed to lease its land to the city for $1 a year and the city opened a Safe RV Parking site on July 7 on the company’s land through the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency.

In the Safe RV Parking site, residents who own RVs and trailers can legally live in them and receive services. It’s unclear how long this service will last, as the lease between GameChanger and the city can expire by November of next year. That same lease laid out plans to allow 75 RVs or trailers space to park, but while walking through the site on November 10, this writer counted 29 RVs while half of the site sat vacant. The site is not available for many residents, like Parker, who don’t have an RV or a trailer.

“I never received an offer to move in,” said Parker, who lives in a truck. “It’s for RVs only.”

The site opening has put other residents at risk of displacement who can’t or don’t want to access it. Since Oakland’s City Council unanimously passed its Encampment Management Policy in October of last year, despite protests and critical public comments during five hours of a meeting, city policy now states those living within 25 feet of such sites can face clearance.

Although their policy now allows it, the city had not attempted to move nor even encouraged people who are living near the Safe RV Parking site to leave the area until the November 8 operation. But recent communications from Justin Tombolesi, who is the constituent liaison for District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, have led advocates and homeless people to believe the company is now pressuring the city to force people to leave the area. In a text message to a homeless resident who lives near Wood Street, Tombolesi wrote “Gamechanger is suing the city because people are too close to the RV site.”

Gamechanger denies suing or pressuring the city. When asked if the company was suing or threatening to sue the city, the company’s lawyer, Pat Smith of Smith LLP, responded in an email, writing “Not at all — no thought of suing the city. The city is solely in charge of the site and ownership has no involvement or concern over how the city is handling things.”

In an e-mail, Boyd wrote that “No filings or actions to terminate the lease have been served upon the city,” but that the city has “spoken with legal counsel representing GameChanger’s lot regarding the city’s plans to create compliance.”

In another text message to the same resident, Tombolesi also claimed the city would allow residents living on Wood Street to move to a vacant portion of land off the street and just north of the Safe RV Parking site during the November 8 closure operation. No residents have moved into that location and residents, as well advocates who were on site that day, claim no one was invited to do so. Boyd said the city offered nine spaces in the city’s Community Cabins, and five spaces in a rapid rehousing program called The Holland. One resident accepted a space in the Community Cabins, which is a program that offers small, unheated shelter in shed-like spaces made by the Tuff Shed company.

Advocates claim about a dozen of them showed up on November 8 to support residents. One of them, Annmarie Bustamente, said their presence “definitely helped the residents block the eviction” and that the residents were “tired of displacement and said no” to a member of Oakland’s Public Works Department encouraging them to move.

Although the closure operation was originally slated to occur over three days between Monday November 8 and Wednesday November 10, no one from the city came back after the first day.

“The ability to proceed Monday impacted the entire operation,” wrote Boyd in an e-mail, “and activities for the following days were cancelled.”

Although homeless residents did not leave Wood Street, Oakland’s Police Department’s Public Information Officer Kim Armstead said the department did tow six vehicles for long expired registration on November 6 and 7 in the area in preparation for the closure.

According to Armstead, the department avoided towing vehicles that served as people’s homes, as the department, following the cities’ direction, has “agreed not to tow vehicles where there is clear evidence they are being used as shelter.” Armstead also said on November 8, OPD supported the city operation with two officers, one sergeant, and six police service techs who provided traffic control and security for city workers.

One homeless resident named Evangeline said the towing of her and her husband’s vehicle has made it difficult to go grocery shopping and to visit her mother, who just had a heart attack. The couple can’t afford to pay the fees to get the car back, so it will remain in the tow yard.

“We’re really stuck,” she said.

Although residents like Parker avoided being moved from Wood Street, it’s unclear when or if the city will come back to move them. According to Parker, a member of the non-profit Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency has been working to secure some form of permanent housing for him, and he’s hopeful that the person will be successful.

“I’m a little older now so my peak interest is getting back into housing,” said Parker. “If I get into housing, I’m sure I won’t go back to this. I can’t take these harsh elements no more.”

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Activism

African American Sports & Entertainment Group (AASEG) helps support 25th annual turkey drive in East Oakland

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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The African American Sports & Entertainment Group came out to support the 25th annual Community Giving Foundation Turkey drive at Verdese Carter Park in East Oakland.

Hosted by founder and organizer Marlon McWilson, the turkey drive that started in 1997 has now donated over 35,000 Turkey’s through McWilson’s foundation. In attendance were Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong, Oakland PAL, California Assembly Member Mia Bonta (AD-18) along with husband and Attorney General for the State of California Rob Bonta. Assembly Member Bonta also congratulated the AASEG on their recent unanimous 8-0 approval to enter negotiations with the City of Oakland on an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) to purchase the city’s half interest of the coliseum land, and looks forward to working with the team.

Assembymember Mia Bonta said,”I am excited and fully in support of the City Council’s decision to prioritize an African American-led, Oakland rooted, development group to negotiate how we can reimagine the Coliseum site. This represents a promise of development without displacement, and amenities and entertainment that East Oakland once had and deserves again. This is also the kind of community-led, wealth building opportunity l will fight for at the state level, and I will continue to support initiatives like these here in the 18th Assembly District.”

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Bay Area

Get Booster Shot, Celebrate Thanksgiving Holiday Safely, State Officials Say

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

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According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”
According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

Golden State public health officials are recommending that Californians take COVID-19 booster shots to prevent a resurgence of the disease and to celebrate the holidays safely with their loved ones.

“It’s not too late to get it,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Department, referring to the COVID-19 booster shot. He was speaking at a vaccine clinic in Los Angeles County last week.

“Get that added protection for the Thanksgiving gatherings you may attend,” he said.

Last week, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine boosters for all adults in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed with an endorsement of the booster vaccine, recommending it for people over age 50, and anyone 18 and older who is at higher risk.

The CDC loosened the language for all other adults, saying anyone over age 18 “may” take the shot.

California officials say the booster shots are plenty and available throughout the state.

“If you think you will benefit from getting a booster shot, I encourage you,” said Ghaly. “Supplies are available. There are many sites across the state – thousands in fact.”

On Saturday, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup completed a separate review of the federal government’s approval process for the booster shots and also recommended that “individuals 18 or older who have completed their primary vaccination series,” take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters.

California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington state came together last year and created the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup. The group, made up of scientists, medical professionals and public health experts, is charged with reviewing COVID-19 vaccine safety.

Over the last two weeks, COVID-19 infections across the United States have increased at a rate of nearly 33%, according to the CDC.

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

“COVID-19 boosters are available to all Californians 18 [and over]! Walk-in clinics are open statewide with no appointment necessary – like this mobile clinic in Avenal. Find a clinic or pharmacy near you and get yours today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office chimed in on Twitter.

Newsom has pushed hard for the vaccine booster since he received his last month.

“Great news for the rest of the country. The holidays are here — make sure to keep your immunity up and protect yourself and your loved ones. Get your booster,” Newsom tweeted on November 18.

According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

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