From “The Birth of a Nation” to “American Sniper”: In the Dark With Our Eyes Open

The century between Birth and Sniper suggests that - although historical events may not exactly repeat themselves - as Mark Twain noted, they do rhyme. (Photo: Sniper via Shutterstock; Edited LW / TO)The century between Birth and Sniper suggests that – although historical events may not exactly repeat themselves – as Mark Twain noted, they do rhyme. (Image: U.S Sniper via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

American Sniper exploded on the national scene, sending disturbing reverberations back 100 years to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation – which also ignited the entire country in controversy.

Both engage in deep and disturbing currents of their day. Together, they suggest the United States, as a country, is in denial. Sniper resonates with many films made over the century, but if you seek rich insights into US history, these two films take us far beyond the screen.

Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL volunteer, achieved heroic status as the most lethal killer in US military history with 160 kills. Showing little cognitive dissonance, Kyle wishes he’d killed even more of those “savages,” those “rag heads” who resist and resent our unwelcome presence in their country. Like Dick Cheney, he’d do it again. Many returning veterans, as we know, are seriously conflicted, on drugs, can’t sleep and commit violence against their families, with 22 committing suicide every day. Kyle, however, prepares his two young boys to follow in his footsteps, lashing his belt across the dinner table to emphasize, “We’re not raising any sheep in this family.” They are to be “sheepdogs,” strong enough to kill the “wolves,” and to faithfully obey their commander-in-chief. (1)

As did soldiers who followed orders in Vietnam, killing “anything that moves.” As did Sergeant York, the most decorated soldier in World War I. The film Sergeant York was 1941’s highest-grossing, with attendance aided by the attack on Pearl Harbor. After seeing the film, many immediately enlisted. York had been conflicted by his pacifism versus his belief that God wanted him to fight and resisted a feature film being made about him. He relented only when given funds to form a Bible school. (2)

The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown in the White House, swept President Woodrow Wilson, the first president from the South following the Civil War, off his feet. He said, “It was like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Some churches today advocate for war. One near Seattle has used clips from Sniper to have a “ceremony of military worship.” Reverend Kellogg wanted to “install reverence for the ‘sheepdogs,'” those using their God-given gifts to protect the flock. The week following, in a “ceremony of police worship,” church members were asked to recite an oath promising to pledge they would abide by the law and obey the police. Nothing was mentioned about Seattle’s police brutality resulting in a $1.75 million settlement and that force’s well-publicized record of such acts – leading recently to anti-police brutality protesters disrupting a Seattle City Council meeting.

Across the state, the Real Life Church sponsored the “Spokane Sheepdog Seminar.” “Circuit-riding evangelists from the Homeland Security,” using language taken almost verbatim from the film, stated that denying evil is cowardly – that police officers, like those in the military, are “elevated above the ovine masses who … seek their protection” and must be obeyed. The event drew more than 250 people from six states. Church members would receive “intensive firearms and emergency response training and be expected to be vigilant ‘watchmen’ of the church grounds.” “[O]pen source US intelligence” confirms that “al-Qaeda and ISIS are monitoring American church websites for church function dates and particularly church pilgrimage activities.”

Kyle, returning after four stints in Iraq, is shot in the back of his head at a shooting range in Dallas by a troubled former Marine he was trying to help. His killer, judged not insane, is now in prison for life. The shooting isn’t shown. The film ends with a 10-mile funeral procession after a memorial service in the Dallas Cowboys stadium attended by 7,000 people, including Navy SEALs and their families, supposedly flown in for free, and Sarah Palin with Randy Travis singing “Amazing Grace.”

Minister “Rick” Phillips, former general and professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, thinks “it is hard to see how he [Jesus] ‘would condemn an American citizen who faithfully answered his country’s valid call to military service.'” He adds, “The New Testament clearly states a Christian’s duty to ‘be subject to the governing authorities.'” “Sniper Theology” suggests we face godless terrorists: To be faithful, we must be willing to endure pain, violence, even the killing of mothers and children; our commander-in-chief makes no secret of the fact that he alone and without any legal process, will order drones to kill others wherever and whoever they might be, US citizens not excluded; we Christians, as armed crusaders, embrace that theology.

Birth “provided Griffith and Wilson a bridge from southern, parochial loyalties to nationalism and – by way of the Philippines and the war to end war – internationalism.”

After Sniper was released, The Guardian reported anti-Muslim threats skyrocketed. The accomplished Clint Eastwood, however, claims his film is not pro-war, political or war propaganda. He says it only offers insights into the complexities faced by a skilled, religious man struggling to serve his country with consequences for himself and his family back home. Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin agree. Some vigorously disagree, such as the veteran Eric Margolis, one of the most experienced Middle East reporters, who personally knew most of the region’s leaders over many years, and in a February 28, 2015, article called Sniper “loathsome … [and] A fascist fiesta for low IQ Americans.” Sniper can be seen as an implicit endorsement of US foreign policy, placing many people here and in countries around the world in harm’s way. The film, like all films, can be thought of as a mere bundle of words and images, but, nonetheless, can prove dangerous.

Consider D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on March 3, 2015. (3) Birth ran an unheard-of three hours and 10 minutes when films were a maximum of 10 minutes or “one-reelers.” This was before portions were censored, reducing it by 35 minutes. The “birth” is not, as one might think, that of a new nation arising from the devastation of the Civil War or Lincoln’s death. Both occur in the first half. “The film that started it all,” that created “Hollywood” films, reached its climax, arising from two attempted rapes of white women by black men. A last-minute rescue, accomplished by white-robed Ku Klux Klan members racing on horseback, stopped the nearly successful black attack on a white family. “[T]he real nation,” according to Griffith, “has only existed in the last fifteen or twenty years…. The birth of a nation began … with the Ku Klux Klan and we have shown that.” KKK membership soared after the movie’s release. (4)

In many cities, strong emotions inevitably led to protests. Some Southern audiences fired their guns at the screen. Many blacks and some whites demanded sequences be cut, such as a quote by Lincoln opposing racial equality, some graphic sexual assaults by blacks, the alleged rapist’s castration, and the original ending showing “Lincoln’s solution,” which he long favored – masses of black people being loaded on ships and sent back to Africa. Birth depicted the Reconstruction period, as summarized by historian Steven Mintz, as a “disaster,” that “blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals [and] the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government.” (5)

Birth, the first film shown in the White House, swept President Woodrow Wilson, the first president from the South following the Civil War, off his feet. He said, “It was like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson was a friend of Thomas Dixon, the author of The Clansman, the novel on which Birth was largely based, when the two were studying political science at John Hopkins University. Wilson’s own book, The History of the American People, was used as part of the source material for Birth. As president, he had ordered the resegregation of the federal government and Booker T. Washington observed that he had “never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter.” Like Griffith and Dixon, Wilson thought blacks inferior. (6)

The film “inflamed the already narrow-minded, prejudiced, puritanical white-American masses against the Negroes and thus retarded by at least half a century the progress of white-Negro relations in the United States.”

Birth wasn’t the first-ever “blockbuster.” Quo Vadis, an Italian film made a few years earlier, ran two hours with 5,000 extras and lavish sets telling the story of Nero burning Rome. It was first screened for King George V in London. A year later Cabiria, another Italian film, even longer and more spectacular, “helped resuscitate a distant history that legitimized Italy’s past and inspired its dreams” delivering “the spirit for conquest that seemed to arrive from the distant past,” thereby presaging the “political rituals of fascism.” (7)

A substantial change to filmmaking came out of this desire to depict national history. History-telling requires time, difficult, if not impossible, to reduce anything of merit to only 10 minutes. Too many people and too many events must be aggregated and sequenced to make sense of how it all came to pass. Griffith’s Birth, unlike the offerings of the Italian directors, gained great respect from the world’s most sophisticated filmmakers, especially those dealing with their county’s history.

Two examples: Sergei Eisenstein designed and directed Battleship Potemkin with its famous Odessa steps sequence, one of the most influential propaganda films ever made, as well as Alexander Nevsky, the story of Russia being invaded and defeating Teutonic Knights. Vsevolod Pudovkin, depicting Russian history, produced three film classics: The End of St. Petersburg, Mother and Storm Over Asia. (8)

Important to note here is that Birth “provided Griffith and Wilson a bridge from southern, parochial loyalties to nationalism and – by way of the Philippines and the war to end war – internationalism.” (9)

Griffith was well aware of two related concerns: Wilson wanted, without making it obvious, the deeply isolationist United States to get involved in the ongoing Great War. And the “New Woman,” thanks in part to the Industrial Revolution, wanted to be treated as an equal.

Birth was the screen memory through which, apparently, Americans were to understand their collective past and enact their future.

Some men felt this change, felt weakened, under attack. How to prove themselves in this new world? Griffith and Dixon imagined white men standing up and fighting as they had done prior to being “humiliated” by the North. Birth helped Wilson manipulate Americans into the “war to end all wars,” an opportunity for men to recover their pride and masculinity. They assumed women would feel grateful. In The Clansman, Elsie, the wife of Ben Cameron, the leader of the KKK, is a New Woman, a believer in female equality. She tells Ben, “I deny your heaven-born male kingship. I don’t care to be absorbed by a mere man…. My ideal is an intellectual companion.” Ben, a Southern cavalier, is indifferent to politics, but the black threat politicizes him and Elsie will adopt his point of view. Repudiating her previous identity as “a vain, self-willed, pert little thing,” she tells him, “In what I have lived through, I have grown into an impassioned, serious, self-disciplined woman.” (10)

After the film’s release military enlistment soared. KKK membership skyrocketed.

Blacks felt endangered by Birth; many wanted it banned. Organized opposition succeeded in Ohio. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) battled in courts throughout the United States, but failed. The most one might say was that the film “inflamed the already narrow-minded, prejudiced, puritanical white-American masses against the Negroes and thus retarded by at least half a century the progress of white-Negro relations in the United States.” (11)

Nonetheless, the film was applauded by some prominent white people for its supposed historical accuracy and “educational” value. “Go see it,” Dorothea Dix urged her readers, “for it will make a better American of you.” (12) Griffith agreed. “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words…. We’ve found a universal language – a power that can make men brothers and end war forever.” Although Birth didn’t create racism, it did energize the sheepdogs.

Many scholars have examined the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. How do they compare with Griffith and Dixon? One of the most influential versions came from the Dunning School of Historiography, named after Columbia University’s William Dunning (1857-1922). This formulation claimed that Reconstruction proved former slaves incapable of self-government, that allowing them to vote was a serious error, that Blacks had no aspirations or ideals and discounted reason. Margaret Mitchell in her Gone With the Wind agreed. Such mythologies endured in our textbooks well into the 1960s. (13)

Griffith reckoned that in the public library of the future, instead of reading about history and “ending bewildered without a clear idea of exactly what did happen, and confused at every point by conflicting interpretations … you will merely … press the button and actually see what happened.” No opinions expressed. “You will merely be present at the making of history.” (14) Birth was the screen memory through which, apparently, Americans were to understand their collective past and enact their future. (15) Photographs had long served to freeze and preserve a thin slice of the past. They were, as Andre Bazin has pointed out, a “death mask made with light.” With Birth America gained a “Dream Factory.”

Bill Moyers remembered an old photograph, taken after Birth‘s release, that his father had, which captured a lynching in Waco, Texas, the heart of the Bible Belt.

The victim, Jesse Washington, was said to have murdered a white woman. There were no witnesses; the grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict. The man was dragged outside, tied to a tree, doused in oil and the crowd, waiting ignition of the wood, cut off his fingers, toes and genitals. Then Jesse was raised and lowered into the flames to prolong his pain. His parts were later sold as souvenirs. The photographer found the people who participated didn’t try to hide their identity; they wanted to be seen. A picture postcard was mailed saying “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.” (16)

No official tried to stop the mob and the city officers remained well respected. A few citizens were appalled, and considered staging a protest, but then thought better of it. Waco town officials claimed it was done by a small group. Even when confronted with photographic evidence, they refused to change their story. When a newspaper editor claimed Jesse Washington was innocent and pointed at the murdered woman’s husband, he was convicted of libel.

“Between 1882 and 1968,” Moyers notes, “there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US. Not all to blacks. About a quarter of them were white people, many of whom had been killed for sympathizing with black folks.” (17) A recent report shows there were actually more “terror lynchings” than previously thought.

Burning people alive has been done for centuries. There have always been the “evil” others and wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Men have killed others from a distance using crossbows, canons, bombs, napalm, Agent Orange, nuclear weapons and the use of symbols, words and images. Today, we have a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president taking people out with drones. New? Not really.

Since its birth 239 years ago, the United States has waged war for 222 years. One hundred and fifty years ago, Americans killed 800,000 of their own. Sixty-five years ago, Muslim leaders who were not pro-United States were targeted, the CIA legally authorized to take political action which led to our military seizing power in more than three-dozen nations, a quarter of the world’s sovereign states. Nowadays, war, mass incarceration and policing target vast numbers of people of all colors, everywhere – particularly Black people – with state-sanctioned violence.

The century between Birth and Sniper suggests that – although historical events may not exactly repeat themselves – as Mark Twain noted, they do rhyme.

Footnotes:

1. Chris Hedges, “Killing Ragheads for Jesus: On Watching ‘American Sniper,'” CommonDreams.org, (26 January 2015.) Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/26/killing-ragheads-jesus-watching-american-sniper
See also: Paul Street, “Hollywood’s Service to Empire,” Counter Punch.org, (20 February 2015). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/20/hollywoods-service-to-empire/ and Laurence M. Vance, “Hero or Murderer” LewRockwell.org, (11 February 2015). Online: http://www.lewrockwell.com/2013/02/laurence-m-vance/hero-or-murderer/

2.Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_of_Jesse_Washington

3. A wonderful book on Griffith and Birth. Online: http://www.amazon.com/Griffiths-100th-Anniversary-Birth-Nation-ebook/dp/B00JK2QCEC/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1424979340&sr=8-12&keywords=birth+of+a+nation

4.New York American, 28 February 1915, in Geduld, Focus on D. W. Griffith, p. 28

5. Maxwell Bloomfield, “The Leopard’s Spots: A study in Popular Racism,” American Quarterly 16 (Fall 1964), p. 387-392.

6. Andrew Napolitano, Theodore and Woodrow: How Two Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom, (Dallas, Thomas Nelson Press, 2012), p. 109.

7.Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quo_Vadis_%281912_film%29 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabiria

8. Seymour Stern, ed. Ira H. Gallen, D.W. Griffith’s 100th Anniversary: The Birth of a Nation, (Kindle edition), Location 3051 of 10966.

9. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 97 quoting Woodrow Wilson, Division and Reunion 1829-1889 (New York, 1893), p. 294, and Constitutional Government, p. 49.

10. Thomas Dixon, The Clansman, pp. 127, 149, 163-64, 333.

11. Seymour Stern, ed. Ira H. Gallen, D.W. Griffith’s 100th Anniversary: The Birth of a Nation, (Kindle edition), Location 991 of 10966.

12. Lary May, Screening Out The Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry, (New York: Oxford University, 1980) p. 60

13.Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning_School

14. D.W. Griffith, “Five-Dollar ‘Movies” Prophesied,” The Editor, 24 April 1915 in Geduld, Focus on D.W. Griffith, 1971, p. 25.

15. John Hope Franklin, “Birth of a Nation – Propaganda as History,” The Massachusetts Review 20, Autumn 1979: 4107-33.

16. Bill Moyers, “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree, Never Far Away”, Commondream.org, 6 February 2015. Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/06/fiery-cage-and-lynching-tree-brutalitys-never-far-away

17. Ibid.