“The Birth of a Nation” was hardly the last racist accomplishment to come out of Hollywood. But it far surpasses in viciousness the cartoonish servile servant roles epitomized by Stepin Fetchit in movies such as John Ford’s 1934 “Judge Priest.” And while there are allusions to the Klan in 1939′s “Gone with the Wind,” those are mild compared to the graphic and laudatory portrayal in Griffith’s film.
Rather, “The Birth of a Nation” takes its place alongside the Nazis’ “Triumph of the Will” and “Jew Suss” as among the most despicable propaganda pictures of all time. Its racist imagery has reverberated for a century. Griffith’s agitprop epic is believed to have been a Ku Klux Klan recruiting tool. And his stereotype of Black men as brutal savages may be in the unconscious or conscious minds of those police officers and vigilantes who use excessive force against Blacks now, in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., Sanford, Fla. and beyond.
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