The Birth of a Nation / Putney Swope

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This could be, erh, controversial.

The Film(s): A double feature highlighting race in America

The Potable: A New Belgium variety 12-pack

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film is not something one watches voluntarily. It’s silent, three hours long, shot in monochrome, and, of course, it’s heart-numbingly racist. It’s preserved in the National Film Registry for its technical achievements and it’s taught in film schools. But I never went to film school, and honestly, it’s something that keeps popping up on those IMDb “how many of these 250 movies have you seen?” lists. So, in the interest of checking off a box, I held my nose and went for a deep dive.

The film’s first half isn’t terrible and features impressive set pieces, including some of the earliest battle scenes set to celluloid. But the frame is filled with so much goddamn artillery smoke it’s impossible to tell North from South. Lawrence of Arabia features equally impressive battle scenes, except by 1962 the studios had figured out how to shoot around the smoke. Bring in giant fans. Dehumidifiers. I don’t know how they do it, actually.

Technical achievements abound, but it becomes abundantly clear after the intermission why The Birth of a Nation is based on a novel called The Clansmen. Many of these negatives outweigh the positives. The film includes one of the earliest big screen uses of a flashback, but also features a dozen actors in blackface, so that’s a wash. It set the stage for the cinematic epic, but also features a voting fraud scene so cartoonish it could have come from the imagination of President Trump. Its camerawork defined action scenes for decades to come, but the film also portrays the KKK as a heroic organization that saved the South from black anarchy during Reconstruction – so that kind of pours cold water on the whole thing.

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The Birth of a Nation was the first feature film to ever be screened in the White House, and I’d wager Steve Bannon has a copy stored in the Oval Office at present.

When the film ended, I felt dirty, unclean. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a cannister of dry shampoo, and sprayed it all over my DVD player.

Emerging from a deeply polluted pool, I popped in my copy of Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope. Released in 1969, it opens on a jean-vested lawyer flying into Manhattan aboard a helicopter adorned with a Confederate flag. After three hours of Griffith, I have had enough of Dixie, but thankfully this redneck attorney has only a brief role; he’s a caricature of American capitalism’s ugly underbelly, and the real target of Downey’s satire, even if the corporate world disguises themselves in suits.

Putney Swope is the lone black man on the executive board of an ad agency on Madison Avenue. When the president of the agency dies, the board members must elect his successor. Unable to vote for themselves, the conniving white board members cast their votes for Swope, assuming no one else will.

What follows is what my drunk ass surmises to be a middle finger to the ongoing white power structure that exists 102, erh, 54 years after The Birth of a Nation. Swope runs the company as the Man’s worst nightmare. Ads for tobacco, alcohol (what’s the deal?), and war are all off limits, and I don’t know if you know this, but those are big sellers. The US government gets involved and tries to convince the newly-named Truth and Soul agency to fall in line. Does it? Hell no.

Swope takes all kinds of other awesome initiatives. He fires all of these idiots, keeping just one token white guy around for prosperity’s sake. He negotiates a photographer’s salary down to $0 and then tells him to “take a walk” anyway. He starts to dress like Fidel Castro, rolls his own Cubans, and keeps $8 million in cash in a glass dunk tank.

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In a time of the rising so-called “alt-right,” one of these films serves as an example of effective propaganda. Of how narrative techniques can be used to glorify hate and rally the worst of those among us. One demonstrates how media can valorize and normalize humanity’s most frightening impulses. Even if it’s worth forgetting, one of these movies may be worth studying.

One of these movies does all of these things, while the other is a big “fuck you” to the former. One of these movies is irreverent, gonzo filmmaking that riffs on minority depiction and racial politics. It may not be the foundation of cinema as we know it, but one of these films is still a shining example of the counterculture and positive change.

A particularly egregious scene in The Birth of a Nation shows a Southern Congress governed by black lawmakers after the Civil War. Every black stereotype imaginable is on full display, the implication being that these Congressman cannot possibly lead an organization the size of the US government. Putney Swope looks at this scene, raises an eyebrow, and asks, “are you for surreal?”

Verdict(s): somehow I’ve still only seen 11 movies on this IMDb list

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