Taking Down ‘Birth of a Nation’

Chapman University removes posters from prominent places in its film school after students object to centrality of a work full of racism.

April 24, 2019
A Facebook photo that galvanized students

The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, is a film full of racist images. White people, many in blackface, portray (and denigrate) black people as dangerous and unintelligent. The Ku Klux Klan is glorified. The film was wildly popular with white audiences who cared nothing about its racism.

The film has also been studied for years, not only for its reflection of certain ideas at the time, but for its use of film techniques such as fade-outs that were unheard-of until the film but became standard. Many film experts have called the film a technically brilliant work of horrifically bigoted ideas. The American Film Institute includes the film among the "100 greatest American movies of all time."

But should it hold a place of honor in a film school?

In March, Arri Caviness, a film student at Chapman University, gathered a group of fellow students and posed for a Facebook photo around a poster from the film (above). Two posters from the film were up on walls in the Chapman film school, along with other historic movie posters.

"Why does Dodge College of Film & Media Arts, The Hollywood Reporter's 6th best U.S. film school, still condone the celebration of white supremacy?" Caviness's Facebook post asked.

Other students got involved and organized a rally in which they talked about the impact of walking by posters that celebrate a notoriously racist work of art.

Initially, President Daniele Struppa refused to take the posters down.

In an essay in the student newspaper, Struppa wrote that the film was significant, even if it was racist.

"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," he wrote.

"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."

As students continued to protest, however, he agreed to a film school faculty vote on the matter. When professors backed the removal of the posters this week, Struppa immediately ordered them taken down.

The president then released a statement praising the faculty vote.

"While I know this has been a difficult decision and there was disappointment that I did not just act on my own and have the poster removed, I do hope that faculty and students appreciate the importance of how this decision was made. I felt strongly that it could not be imposed by me as an act of authority, but rather requested by the faculty who best understand the impact of the decision on their school and on the students’ educational experience. On the basis of the many conversations I had with my colleagues, I know their decision is predicated on their love for their students and their desire to eliminate anything that could be an obstacle to their learning."

A Chapman spokesman said that the film would continue to be taught.

A Film With a Terrible Influence

Thom Andersen, a film professor at the California Institute of the Arts, said in an interview that he would never have had the posters up in the first place.

"It's inconceivable to me that anyone would think that was the right thing to do," he said. "That's not talking about the film. That's honoring the film."

Andersen said that there is no question about the film's significance.

"It was the first blockbuster film, it was the first long film. It was in a way responsible for the success of movies in the United States," he said.

But Andersen added, "I don't think there is a film that has had such a negative impact on our society. As a film promoting the Ku Klux Klan, it helped lead to a rebirth of the Klan, not only in the South, but in the Midwest and Southern California. And by perpetuating a false sense of history about Reconstruction, the film helped lead to Jim Crow laws, to the disenfranchisement of black people, to lynchings." The film alone didn't do all of those things, he said, "but it made a large contribution."

Andersen said he would never want a professor prevented from teaching the film if he or she wanted to do so. But he said that there may be better ways to cover that period.

When he has taught film history, he has focused for that period on Within Our Gates, a 1920 film that depicted (accurately) the racism and violence faced by black people. The film was produced by Oscar Micheaux, seen as the first major black film producer in the United States. Within Our Gates is in many ways a historically accurate answer to The Birth of a Nation, Andersen said. (One of the students who responded on social media to the original calls for taking down the posters wrote, "Do they have a poster for an Oscar Micheaux film as well? If the defense is that this is historical (which is always going to have some racism in it in a historically racist society) then one would think it responsible to celebrate such an undercelebrated and equally important African American filmmaker from our history.")

While there are "reasons why one might choose to teach" The Birth of a Nation, Andersen said he rejected the idea that history requires it. "To me the history of cinema is rich enough that there are no films that have to be taught," he said.

On Monday, after the posters were removed, Caviness posted to Facebook another shot of the poster advertising The Birth of a Nation. The caption by Caviness: "It's gone."


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