PLYMOUTH — A century-old movie that has been reviled for its racism but lauded for its cinematic innovations has prompted protests of its showing in Plymouth.
"The Birth of a Nation" is the story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, an adaptation of the novel "The Clansmen," by Thomas Dixon Jr. It portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force, and black men as stupid and sexually aggressive to white women. According to IMDb, it was banned in many cities over the years and is one of the most controversial movies ever made.
The silent movie is set to be shown at The Flying Monkey in Plymouth on Thursday, complete with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis. Rapsis chose the movie to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, saying "It's a chance for today's audiences to consider first-hand evidence of the obstacles to race equality that existed a century ago, to think about what progress has been made, and to also ponder how many of the prejudices on display in this film that we may still harbor, even unconsciously."
The president of the Black Student Union at Plymouth State University said he was '"shocked" to hear the film would be shown, and other members of the university community have expressed their opposition to the movie, prompting Rapsis and Alex Ray of The Flying Monkey to send a response.
"On 'The Birth of a Nation,' we understand and share your concerns," they said in an email to PSU. "All along, our goal has been to screen the film in a way that acknowledges these concerns up front and as an integral part of the presentation through our press materials, in remarks at the screening, and by engaging community members such as yourselves. We feel the screening should go on as scheduled due to the film's unique and undeniable impact on cinema and culture. We hope you understand our perspective. While there's no question the film contains objectionable material, it remains a significant and influential work and an integral part of the silent film canon."
Neither Rapsis nor Ray felt removing the movie from the schedule was the best way to address concerns.
"Rather, screening the film will give those who wish to experience it as intended – in a theater, with live music, and with an audience – a chance to understand how pervasive racism was at the time the film was produced, and also to contemplate what role racism still plays in our society today," they wrote. "Regarding the connection to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you have helped us understand how this link is something of a "stretch" in terms of programming, and have challenged us to address this more effectively and sensitively in the time left prior to the screening."
Because the movie is nearly three hours long, there isn't time for a panel discussion, but Rapsis does plan opening remarks about what he calls a "though-provoking" movie.