Editorial | History doesn’t excuse racism

Illustrated by Gaby Fantone

Taking down a poster featuring a film that glorifies the Confederacy shouldn’t be a difficult decision to make. But it seems like the administration at Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts is having trouble.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a 1915 movie that many consider to be a cinematic masterpiece in terms of technical achievement. But most people now see it for what it really is: propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The film, which depicted the hate group as the saviors of the post-Civil War South, is thought to have helped propel the KKK’s resurgence after William Joseph Simmons, a preacher from Georgia became obsessed with the film.

Historical significance is not an excuse for proudly displaying imagery of a film so closely tied to racism and oppression. It’s like having a Confederate flag bumper sticker or a town proudly displaying a statue of Robert E. Lee: You can argue that it’s just a sticker or just a statue. But for many, it represents years of pain, suffering and inequality.

The New Yorker film writer Richard Brody went as far as to say the worst thing about the film, which showed actors in blackface and depicted racist stereotypes and lynching, is “how good it is.” This apologist reaction disguised as an appreciation for film history is unacceptable. Praising the movie’s “grand and enduring aesthetic” and “profoundly human moments” while ignoring its archaic and disturbing portrayals of black people is insulting to the black community.

“A film that dehumanizes black people, celebrated lynching, and is, in no small part, responsible for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, is not worthy of our praise,” Arri Caviness, a Chapman student who tweeted about the poster and posed in a photo with five other Dodge students, told The Panther.

It took Dodge College’s Twitter account five days to respond to the tweet, and its administration declined to provide a statement to The Panther unless we published it in full.

In a phone interview with The Panther, President Daniele Struppa said that while he has not seen the film, its induction into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry means it’s “not just any movie.”

“It would seem strange that as a university, we would obfuscate that,” Struppa said, adding that he believes censorship in any form is bad, even when done with the best intentions. “That’s not the way we learn. Instead of erasing, we remember and we criticize and discuss and educate.”

We understand that censorship can be dangerous. But few people have the privilege to look at a poster celebrating racism and hate groups and only see a sign of advancement in film. For a university like Chapman, which purports to strive for diversity, someone should have known better than to put and keep this poster up.

In the 2018 movie “BlacKkKlansman,” members of the KKK are shown eating popcorn and cheering while the film played in the background.

Removing the poster shouldn’t fall in a gray area. It shouldn’t require deliberation. Black students have expressed their discomfort and unease with the poster – and Oscar-winning “BlacKkKlansman” cowriter, who spoke at a Dodge screening of the film March 7, tweeted that seeing the poster that day was “a little uncomfortable.”

So Dodge, what are you waiting for?