The year is 2015.
During last night’s Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” co-anchor Michael Che suggested that the only black life that matters to white America is Kendrick Lamar’s (why else would he have received 11 Grammy nominations?). There have been 63 anti-Muslim incidents documented this calendar year according to a recent study conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and cited by CNN. Women’s reproductive choices are still being debated by people other than themselves. A white male Christian terrorist who attacked Planned Parenthood has not been uniformly referred to as a terrorist (see my previous sentence). Enrobed in the cloak of justice, another white male referenced an amicus brief as he made comments which suggested that black students lack academic fortitude (details here). And of course I cannot not mention that the meaning of my given name is being palimpsested, written over, and reinscribed with images, ideas, and a menacing terror that is antithetical to the thousands year old Egyptian deity for whom I am named. These are just some of the anxiety-producing realities trending today. How is one to cope?
When fear escalates and a hopeless outlook on tomorrow threatens to blanket society, those who can have often found comfort in film. Not surprisingly, the movie industry has been soothing and stoking race, color, gender, and class anxieties since the turn of the 20th century.
Originally titled The Clansman (yes, as in in the Ku Klux Klan), D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) changed the film industry forever. Released fifty years after the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the film echoed the anti-Negro sentiment that continued to hold America in its grip. Its scope, length, and production costs were unlike anything anyone had seen before. African American film authority, Paul Bogle clarifies why this film was so critical in his comprehensive text Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film (2001, 4th ed.), noting: “[…] in articulating his thesis, Griffith seemed to be saying that things were in order only when whites were in control and when the American negro was kept in his place” (p. 10). So powerful was this film in its depiction of romantic bigotry, that the American film industry, I would argue, has never actually recovered from it. If you have seen the film then you know the story: the Cameron men of Piedmont, South Carolina must defend “white womanhood, white honor, and white glory” and “restore to the South everything it has lost, including its white supremacy” (Bogle 12). To do this is a mark of success and the nation is born again with the birth of the KKK. Notably, I will add, IMDb offers less pointed summaries of the film. Imagine screening this film in 1915. Imagine how this film soothed and stoked race, color, gender, and class anxieties. Know the power that this film continues to carry today.
In the hundred years since the release of The Birth of a Nation, America has seen many, many movies. Gangster films and the horror genre pulled America through the Great Depression. Sci-fi films both questioned and eased concerns about the A-bomb, aliens, and artificial intelligence. Fantasy and action movies offered escape from the humdrum of daily life. But the westerns of the 1950s and 60s (curiously, the same years of the Civil Rights era) and the more contemporary superhero film category that has grown steadily since the late 1970s and officially hit its box office stride in the early 2000s, are the two quintessentially American genres. From super-shooters John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to superheroes Batman and the Avengers, Americans have vainly been drawn to movies that uphold the nation’s sense of honor, duty, and being white knights who save the little guy or girl. Why? Well, because these genres play up audiences’ desperate hope to – dare I say it! – “Make America great again.”
Despite the similarities we can too easily find between today and yesteryear, it is, in fact, December 13, 2015. Racists, xenophobes, and extremists of all kinds are all polling and trending right now in Global North history; but polling and trending are not tantamount to winning. Winning is a multi-national compromise being put into practice via a promise made at the COP21 UN climate change conference. The winningest person of the year is German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and Time offers 13 additional reasons why). Winning with a hat trick is Canada: the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the 30 historically young and diverse ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet, and the faith-restoring viral video of the children’s choir welcoming Syrian refugees with a familiar Arabic song (as seen here or check your FB or Twitter feed). And in these politically frustrating times, I cannot help but return to Wag the Dog (1997), which is a winning film that reminds us not to let divisive noise distract us from honoring altruistic achievements that benefit more than ourselves.