Let me start at the beginning - or, at least, this morning when I started watching the three-hour black and white epic that is D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
I missed the day in third-year film class where we watched this one, but did the readings on it which basically state that everyone, including the director himself, were of the opinion that this film is waaaay too offensive to be considered for public viewing, and really should only ever be shown to film students and academics (not because they are smarter or anything, but because they will likely be interested enough in the technical aspects of the film to tolerate the mind-blowing repulsiveness of white actors in blackface portraying "renegade negroes" (not my term! From the film!)).
So anyway, this film made it to my Ziplist almost a year ago, and arrived in the mailbox last month, and I just didn't have the heart, stomach or patience to watch a 80-year-old racist civil war epic (call me crazy!) until this morning.
Having already seen Griffith's Intolerance (widely considered the greatest black and white film ever made) (yes, I lead an exciting life) I was semi-prepared for this film. Intolerance lacks the blatant racial discrimination, but does get in a couple of good jabs at the suffragettes (notably the title card that reads "When women cease to attract men, they often turn to sufferage as a second choice" which is, I guess, the 1916 version of "Feminists are just ugly jealous hags! They wouldn't want rights and equality and shit if random men shouted obscene "compliments" about their bodies at them!").
So, just how bad is Birth of a Nation? [Spoiler alert - like anybody is going to watch this movie anyway]. Well, let me put it this way - I'm currently at the scene where the good-hearted Southern girl is being chased by said "white actor in blackface portraying a renegade negro" who wants to marry her. But don't worry! She'll soon jump to her death rather than risk bring dishonour to herself and her family by being contaminated by a filthy coloured man! I only wish I was kidding - I also only wish that I didn't know that the KKK will soon make an appearance as the noble protectors of the "civilized white culture of the South".
Watching this film reminds me of watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triump of the Will (yes, same film class). Strip them both of their political, social and historical context, and they are technically masterful - flawless, innovative examples of filmmaking. But you can't really do that - strip them of all context, that is. Riefenstahl's gorgeous cloud montage set against Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries is breathtaking - but not enough to make you forget that that is fuckin' HITLER'S plane.
So it's an odd feeling watching these films, because academically, it's like "ooh, check out that cut - wow, the lighting is incredible - omg, that wide angle shot!" but intellectually and emotionally it's like, "WTF, the blacks are evil because they want to be equal?" or "Those thousands of people are cheering for fuckin' HITLER!"
And that, my friends, is why these films, and other works like them, cannot be censored. Do they glorify tyranny, racism, xenophobia? Yes. (Am I currently watching a crowd of men in white robes dispense "justice" to that same white actor in blackface? Yes. Is it disturbing beyond words? Yes.)
These types of works are important not for the messages they seek to transmit, but for the message their mere existence denotes: that there were times and places where the notion of human rights was unheard of, where ignorance and hatred formed the root cause of most opinions, where blatant discrimination was not only tolerated, but openly celebrated.
And that is why censorship is more dangerous than lack thereof - because it is too easy to forget these lessons. When you take books off of library shelves, films out of public display, ideas of of public discourse, you hide a very real, very troubling part of humanity's history. Are there people out there who would watch one fo these films and suddenly be filled with a desire to make their own white robes, or don the backwards swastika? Maybe. But there are far more who will learn the very valuable lesson: "Never again."
Let's all give ourselves a little credit - it might not be pretty, it might be unpleasant, and it might be downright disgusting at times - but we can too handle the truth.