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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rome Capitol Theater' s Showing of Birth of A Nation: Educational?

At 7:00p.m. on April 17th Rome's Capitol Theatre will be host to a viewing of D.W Griffith's controversial 1915 film: Birth of a Nation.
For those of you in the dark, Birth of a Nation, filmed in 1915, is the first epic Blockbuster in American History. Noted by film scholars for it's technical breakthroughs in directing and editing it is equally reviled by civil rights activists and older African Americans for it's stereotypical depictions of Black folks at their worst.
Due to the subject matter, centered around the civil war and reconstruction, many consider it a lightning rod for old school southern racist.
The images of too dumb to know any better, happy slaves and chicken eating, toe picking black Congessman is just too much for some to handle.
Many blame the movie for attributing to a climate of violence during the times (20's). When it was released in 1915 lynchings were on the rise and would eventually reach a statistical peak several years after. The early 20's were also wrought with race riots all over the United States . These were not typical riots. They were attacks on Black communities by armed white people. The theme was always the same, domination of the 'uppity' black community.
What gets lost is the subject of the film: Reconstruction. Reconstruction, a few years after the Civil War was the first time Black Americans were on any type of equal footing with white people. Blacks held office taught in schools served as Postmaster, you name it.
What happened?
The Federal troops left and the dominant planter class, ex-plantation owner waged war with prosperous black ex-slaves to 'set things right'. This began a bloody terroristic campaign that would forever taint the image of The South to African Americans.
To racist whites it was called Redemption.
It is natural for people who have witnessed the outcomes of these events to feel a little uncomfortable with any imagery that reminds them of the causes.
For those lined up in protest against the showing, their reasons are simple.
It's racist.
"Why now" asks Utica's Loretta Johnson, a longtime member of the NAACP.
"Why do they have to show it now? I mean, look at the current climate, people are freaking out over health care and there seems to be an unusual amout of veiled racism". Johnson was reffering to the historic passage of healthcare legislation that has been the source of intense debate for almost a year.
"Now that it's over some people are angry, especially around here(Mohawk Valley)".
On March 22 a group of African Americans along with mayor James Brown of Rome met to discuss alternatives to showing the film.
The group, with the Mayor in agreement, want the showing moved or cancelled.
"Cancelling is out of the question, we have put too much into planning this, we have been thoughtful with our planning as well" said Art Pierce the artistic director at Rome Capitol Theatre.
Pierce has invited Hamilton College Professor of Film History Scott Macdonald to introduce the film and he has also assembled a multi-cultural panel of Mohawk Valley residents to keep it all in perspective.
"We are also going to play a live musical score, the original" Pierce said.
Despite his care in planning Pierce said they were unable to reach a compromise.
Sharing his emotions Pierce said "I think emotions are high right now, we tried to have discussion but we could not get anywhere...they walked out, a few stayed, but most of them left".
Those that stayed were able to share their fears and discuss possibilities. Never the less, Pierce feels he is misunderstood, but sees a positive in establishing a dialog with the Black community in Rome.

Why Now?

The Rome Capitol Theatre has been doing a silent film series since 2002. "We have been getting a lot of requests for this film, in fact it is the most requested movie since we started this" Pierce said.
One could wonder why this movie? Why do soo many people want to see it.
"Well, it is a materpiece" Pierce added.
Morbid curiosity? A reminiscence of times past perhaps? Let us all hope it is all about how far we have come from the dark days of ignorance and violence. Let us all hope it is about learning from our mistakes.
"It is a racist film" admits Art Pierce, the man responsible for organizing this viewing.
"It also has a lot of value as an educational tool"
Yeah I agree but we need to know our history before we can learn anything from it.

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