For many years I have chosen a New Year’s resolution based on guilt and the desire to change something I wasn’t really motivated to change during the other 11 months of the year. This year, I decided to try something different. I wanted to pick a resolution I was excited about. I had no direction prior to the 31st of December, but inspiration hit on the first of the year through a documentary called “These Amazing Shadows.”
The documentary discusses the necessity and importance of preserving film for future generations, and the launch of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Each year the National Registry Board selects 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” to add to the registry. I realized in watching the documentary that I have missed so many classic films that portray huge slices of our history as a nation. So after little thought, I decided I would make my way through the National Film Registry list. My goal is to get through the first year’s list (1989) by the end of 2012. If I complete it early enough, I will move on 1990, etc…
The documentary explained that many of the films chosen each year have cultural significance. Some of the films are home movies of Japanese internment camps or propaganda films from the early 20th century. The lists run the gamut from cartoons to classics like “Casablanca”. One film in particular caught my attention. In 1992, the board selected a film titled “The Birth of A Nation.” This propaganda film depicted the Ku Klux Klan’s perspective on the Civil War. A plot synopsis from IMDB describes the film in the following manner:
“The story is told through two families and often their servants, epitomizing the worst racial stereotypes. As the nation is torn apart by war, the slaves and their abolitionist supporters are seen as the destructive force behind it all. The film's racism grows even worse in its second half, set during Reconstruction and featuring the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, introduced as the picture's would-be heroes. The fact that Griffith (director) jammed a love story in the midst of his recreated race war is absolutely audacious. It's thrilling and disturbing, often at the same time.”
The negative power of film is most evident in films like “The Birth of A Nation” and “The Searchers” (known for stereotyping Native American Indians). These films contributed to groupthink, perpetuated racism and created fear among the masses. Although the cultural significance of “The Birth of A Nation” isn’t positive, it did impact our culture at that time, and therefore was chosen to the Registry. According to film historians, this film propelled the Ku Klux Klan into mainstream USA, provided a culturally acceptable platform for public lynching and laid the foundation for political leaders like Jim Crowe.
Although I am excited about many films on the lists, I am hesitant and nervous to watch others. But this resolution is begging the question, what am I watching today and accepting without hesitation? What stories are being told today that will be known in the future as some of the most negatively impactful films in history? Would I even recognize them for what they are? Would you?