The film has inherent value stated Hamilton College visiting film history professor Scott McDonald. This was Scott’s response to Nathan Sellers Junior’s written objection to the April 17, 2010 showing of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation” at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York.
The 1915 film based on the book Clansmen. It purposely mis-characterizes the Reconstruction Era by depicting Blacks portrayed by white actors in black face as buffoon acting and power abusing politicians. Most absurdly the film also depicts formers slaves as the oppressors of white southerners with a sexual appetite for white women, thus necessitating the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.
Inherent is defined as something that is implicit, though not directly expressed. The film history of this film is not explicit but it’s falsification of the true history as it pertains to the people of color in this country is very explicit.
Mr. MacDonald who has been chosen by Art Pierce, the executive director of theCapitol Theatreto lead a panel discussion after the showing of the nearly 4 hour black and white silent film. MacDonald admits that the film is undeniably racist but he naively suggest that it is a reflection of its time, when blacks had been dispossessed of many of the civil rights guarantees put into place after the Civil War.
Art Pierce, who indicates “The Birth of a Nation” was selected because of its significance in film history also states that
he knew showing the film would stir up some controversy, but has been surprised by the amount of debate.
These comments suggest a few things. First, the men are not listening to Mr. Sellers words. Mr. Sellers argues that the showing of the film in question at this particular time, is inflammatory, unsettling, and is just wrong.
Second, the men fail to recognize that the scars of slavery runs deep and the damage cannot be eradicated with the flip of a switch.
Mr. Sellers words have more than inherent value. They are backed by a history he and our family have lived which is reflective of African History in this country.
Before we get into the real history, it should be revealed that Mr. Sellers’s maternal grandmother and this writer’s paternal grandfather are brother and sister.
Born in Society Hill, S.C., Nathan Sellers Jr. is the son of Bessie and Nathan Sellers Sr. Nathan Jr. is also the grandson of Lucy Bailey Gattison my grandfather’s sister.
Lucy was the daughter of William Bailey, and Annie Bonaparte Bailey who were slaves. Annie along with her father, Curtis Bonaparte, and brother June were listed on their slave master’s inventory as being worth $100, $1,000, and $100 respectively.
During Reconstruction, Curtis was made a supervisor by his former slave master, and not a carpetbagger from the North as the movie would suggest. June became a registered voter, but was later placed on an intimidation list targeting all former male slaves from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.
Lucy’s father, William was born and raised in Cuba where he lived until he and his family( which included his mother, Lucy, his father Sam, and grandmother Elvira, along with wife and children) were sold illegally into bondage to a Tobacco farmer in Virginia.
Upon arriving to the land of opportunity, William was separated from his wife and children who were sent to the Hamilton township in South Carolina. Today that township is known as Society Hill, S.C.
Armed with a compass but not a gun as the film suggest, and unable to speak English, William left Farmville, Virginia in search of his wife and kids at the end of the Civil War.
William was unable to find them, and ended up marrying Annie Bonaparte. That union produced six children. Lucy’s sister Carey married Albert Delaine who was a cousin to the Reverend J.A. Delaine.
Reverend J.A. Delaine was the force behind the Briggs case which was the first five cases that became known as Brown v. Board of Education. After the Supreme Court ruling in Brown, Reverend Delaine had to flee South Carolina in the middle of the night after the so-called God fearing Klan engaged in a drive by shooting at at his parsonage. As a result, Reverend Delaine experienced unemployment and was also a homeless fugitive. The State of South Carolina had sworn out a warrant making him the bad guy in the drive by. That warrant was not removed until numerous years after his death.
Nathan’s father, Nathan Sr. defended this country in WWII. Nathan’s cousin Carud Bailey fought beside John Fox in Italy, and lost his life in a campaign that was used to determine the enemy’s strength in Somacolonia, Italy. In other words, he as well other members of the 92nd Infantry 366th buffalo soldier division were used as guinea pigs.
After returning from the war, Nathan Sr. moved his family including Lucy and all her issue to Philadelphia and eventually to Harlem, New York.
Although the family had built Buckholtz Creek School young Nathan arrived in the North as a seven year old illiterate. Apparently, Allen Coker, the grandson of Caleb Coker and nephew of James Coker (who became a self described Civil War hero as a result of being shot in the rear end) thought that Nathan and all the blacks on his plantation was not entitled to an education.
Unfortunately this practice continued way into the 70′s and only ended when the state of S.C. was forced to allow these kids to go to school for the entire school day and year.
As to the false allegations regarding the competency of the black elected officials, Carud, who is a real war hero was named Cord by his parents. My grandparents education was limited causing them to rely on some one to spell their son’s name. The spelling of his name was provided by some ignorant white man who was also given the job as a census taker.
During his 7 years on the Coker plantation in Society Hill, Nathan Jr. knew something that young Emmitt Till did not know or understand. Nathan learned about racial etiquette, and knew not to even look at a white woman let alone whistle at her. This behavior got Emmitt Till killed in Money, Mississippi at the age of 14 in the summer of 1955.
Nathan Sellers Junior has lived through the burning and bombing of Black Churches by white people who were inspired by The Birth Of A Nation in a political climate that is not so different than the climate of today. In Birmingham, 4 little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson and Adie Mae Collins) were killed in such a bombing as they attended Sunday School.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania three young men (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman,, and Michael Schwerner) who had arrived days before to register blacks to vote were shot to death.
Neither MacDonald nor Pierce seem to acknowledge the political climate of today. It’s inconceivable that these men are unaware of the visibly armed white men in attendance at public events where President Barack Obama is present.
Because they have seen the film in question, they know about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Are they ignorant to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy precipitated by a climate similar to today’s climate. Perhaps these men themselves have been influenced by the false history rendered by Griffith whose name is no longer associated with the director’s guild award. Perhaps they ignore the violent climate of the Tea Baggers who unashamely support Literacy Test, a tool used to disenfranchise people of color of their right to vote.
If The Birth Of A Nation was a film glorifying pedophiles instead of the murderous cowards hiding behind bed sheets, would these men find the inherent value in the film or would the historical contribution they find necessary to share by showing the offensive film be reduced to a footnote?
Further, with today’s micro wave mentality which has reduced the average attention span, would it be feasible to show this 4 long boring hours of an epic? Would it not make more sense to show excerpts compared to the before technology and the technology of today in order to show the significance of the technology used by Griffith? The showing of the film only, will not highlight the historical significance that Pierce and MacDonald claims. That will no doubt be MacDonald’s mission and thus the real purpose of the panel discussion.
It is unsettling and rather arrogant that Mr. MacDonald is of the impression that the mere acknowledgment of the film’s racist depiction is a cure all for the damage that has been caused by the discriminatory practices which includes the making of such a film. The fallacy in this film aspirates the mental trick bag started years ago when Mr. Sellers ancestors were stolen from their home land. The separation of families for profit during slavery as well as the segregation brought on by the Black codes and Jim Crow laws deepened the scars of slavery. This is especially true as to blacks who were not fortunate enough to escape the bondage of a Society Hill, S.C.
Are MacDonald and Pierce uncaring about Nathan Sellers Jr. request because they are not dependent as he and our descendants are on the renewal every 25 years of the Civil and Voter Rights Act? News flash Mr. MacDonald: but for the Voter and Civil Rights Acts people of color are still dispossessed of those rights that were afforded to us through the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution during Reconstruction. That is not an issue for you and people who are similarly situated.
If we were dispossessed during Reconstruction, it can happen again in today’s political climate. That we are not willing to relive. Nor are we willing to have our decendents have to experience that life.
Gentlemen your reasoning rings as empty as the reasons offered by men who partake in the viewing of Playboy and Penthouse Magazine. Certainly if the articles were that interesting, it would not be necessary use the naked body of a woman as a centerfold inside the magazine.
Taking the history of Mr. Sellers’ family and coupling it with the political climate of today’s teabaggers and the pricing structure of the tickets for this event, along with the failure of comparison, one can only conclude that this is not about film history alone, but instead it is all about the Benjamins. This makes you no different than Allan Coker ,or the sub-prime mortgage bandits of today.
It makes you no different than those so call journalist who are petitioning the court in Florida to obtain raw footage of the young lady who was killed by the whale she was training at Seaworld in Orlando. Certainly the incident is news worthy, but we do not need to see the torment suffered by the deceased trainer at the expense of her family to understand how horrifying a death she suffered. Other than bringing traffic to the journalist websites which will result in advertising revenue, what other value inherent or not will showing this footage provide?
The same is true here Mr. Pierce and Mr. MacDonald. People of color should not have to relive those horrifying days and have their history which is finally being revealed made a mockery by the commercial showing of The Birth Of A Nation. The only value the film has as a showing in the setting which you have suggested is that of a recruiting tool for today’s hate groups.
Mr. Seller’s opposing argument for promoting hate is without a doubt true. The KKK used this film for recruitment well into the latter part of the 20th century. The claims of worry for the showing in Rome also are true. The Southern Law Poverty Center has mapped hate groups throughout the United States and clearly, Upstate New York has pockets of organized hate groups. This film could appeal to their cause.
A better solution is the one offered by Mr. Sellers and Mayor James F. Brown. They suggest that this film would be better shown for the so called inherit value of its’ film history in an educational environment like Hamilton College. There interested people of silent film can pay for a course and can get the full explanation and a comparison of the technology can be made. This cannot be done during a single showing. Likewise Mr. Pierce’ solution to screening “Within Our Gates” is not an acceptable solution since the same viewers may not show for the second film. This would, however work in the educational setting where a course is offered.
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