In the most recent issue of The Panther, both the editorial page and front page were dedicated to a student request to take down a poster for the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” hanging in Marion Knott Studios.
Before the request, I had never seen the film, which depicts the story of two Southern families during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. So, before penning this article, I watched it. I deserve special credit here … because it is a silent, black and white movie that is three hours long.
The movie is artfully done. It has acting that is composed and touching, and powerful large-scale scenes. But there are clear reasons for any viewer to be troubled.
If a movie such as this were made now, we would be shocked by the insensitivity it displays and the way in which African Americans are portrayed. It is not hard to see the film’s nostalgia for a time before the Civil War and resentment against the Reconstruction era. All of this pales, however, when compared to the blatantly racist tone that pervades the entire film, especially the second half. It was, at times, really hard to watch it.
I fully understand why many of Chapman’s students are asking for the poster to be taken down. One student told The Panther that the poster is “intimidating” and said that its display shows that Chapman still condones “the celebration of white supremacy.”
This is where I disagree. The film has a significant place in the history of movies. It offers major technical innovations and broke new ground when it was first produced. The historic and artistic value of the film was acknowledged by its 1992 inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress and in 1998, it made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies ever made.
More importantly, I find the desire to remove something whose presence contributes to our collective education troubling. A university is a place where uncomfortable ideas must be expressed and discussed, not a place where they are hidden and eliminated. Removing the poster won’t do an iota of good for our community. Instead, it will take away an opportunity for students to confront a problematic past.
Censorship, including removing a poster, is always hideous, even when done with the best intentions. We must resist the temptation to whitewash our past and to edulcorate reality. Reality is harsh, unpleasant and ugly – and what we have done in the past is often awful and shameful. But this is no reason to hide it.
The truth is that our great country has a checkered history, just like every other country. And on our country is the stain of slavery. It is a stain that cannot be washed away and one we will always have to contend with. The best way to contend with it is not to remove anything that reminds us of the horror but instead confront it with open eyes.
Just like the segment of the Berlin Wall that we have in the center of our campus reminds us of the tragic history of walls that separate people, the poster of “The Birth of a Nation” should remind us of a time when our country struggled with the worst injustices.
While I disagree with the request to remove the poster, I sincerely commend our students for their awareness in really “seeing” the poster, rather than being oblivious to what was around them. Our students turned their encounter with the poster into a moment of learning.
I would be happy to support anything that can put the poster in the appropriate context within both American history and the history of filmmaking, explaining why the movie is important and why it is problematic.
But let’s not seek the destruction and the censorship of art whose content we find objectionable. We are a university: we seek knowledge, we welcome controversy, we embrace dissent and above all, we do not hide from the past — but we seek to learn from it.