D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” is a 1915 film that depicts black people as aggressive, unintelligent subhumans. It celebrates lynching and glamorizes the Ku Klux Klan. It is a racist incitement to violence against African Americans. While it is important to remember the historical events surrounding this film, we don’t need a poster to do that.
I have seen the film twice in its entirety. I don’t ask for special credit here – the first viewing was involuntary, as a class requirement. The second was equally painful and strictly for research into its racist message. I see no merit in the film, because its lauded technical achievements were used to promote hate.
The group of students working to remove the poster and its accompanying advertisement from the hallway of Chapman’s Marion Knott Studios believe these artifacts are racist, irrelevant and misplaced. Our call for their removal is not a “desire to remove something whose presence contributes to our collective education,” as President Daniele Struppa wrote in his April 10 column. It is a call to remove a symbol of hate from a place of honor in our halls. That is not censorship. That does not “take away an opportunity for students to confront a problematic past.”
These opportunities are already present in the classroom, through thoughtful and contextualized study and conversation. A poster is not educational. It implies a commemoration. Some students are not aware of the poster’s presence or significance, but for the students and faculty who are, the poster is a reminder of the pervasiveness of hate.
What does the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts gain from the promotion of this film? How does it represent our community? What does this poster do to attract and excite prospective students? If anything, the promotion of a hateful film makes students feel unwelcome. What we choose to display is a reflection of our beliefs and values. The collection of artwork in the hallways was generously donated by Cecilia DeMille Presley from the estate of her father, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. But it seems no thought was given to the implications of what is displayed and the impact on our community. Faculty and students should be consulted.
We do not advocate against the study of this film. In fact, we believe that “The Birth of a Nation” is an excellent case study in the power of filmmaking. As filmmakers, we need to consider the implications of our work. We must remember that film can be used as a tool, both positively and negatively. The Dodge community is thoughtful and reflective enough to do this on its own, unaided by a poster.
Struppa has indicated that he would “be happy to support anything that can put the poster in the appropriate context.” That’s exactly what we’re fighting for. The “appropriate context” is not a heavily trafficked Dodge hallway. Whether it’s returned to the donor, placed in a museum, or archived in a media library, the poster needs to be removed from its pedestal.
It is vital that the Dean of Dodge College, Bob Bassett, and Struppa reflect upon the impact of the posters. A university’s first concern should be the well-being of its students.
We come to Chapman hoping for a respectful environment that upholds our dignity. How can black students be expected to thrive when they continuously walk by a tribute to a film that denies their humanity? How can you foster a culture of acceptance and collaboration when you promote a film that argues against it? Even Chapman’s official discrimination policy prohibits visual harassment “through the use of … posters, objects, or symbols that ridicule or demean an individual’s or group of individuals’ race.” This film does just that.
Let’s continue this discussion. Why not see what the larger community has to say? The poster will be the subject of this month’s community forum, hosted by Dean of Students Jerry Price in the Cross-Cultural Center April 16 at 4 p.m. We welcome you to join the conversation.