Saturday, November 17, 2007

The World is Black, The World is White

Everything they say about Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent movie three-hour plus masterpiece depicting the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, is true: it's about as racist and ignorant an American movie as I've seen, insulting to anyone who ever had a heart or half a brain. Yet its historical cinematic importance can't be denied either.

Based on the play and novel The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr., it follows the story of two families, predictably one Northern, one Southern who meet, make nice and ultimately get torn apart by the war.

It's got a great cast (Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, Spottiswoode Aitken, etc.) and technically it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. The first part (the "war" section) is impressive in its ambitions, particularly the battlefield scenes, albeit story-wise it drags after a while. The “reconstruction” half is far more interesting, as the characters from the introduced previously finally start to be fleshed out. Unfortunately, the racist overtones only hinted at previosly also come home to roost so that even as you become caught up in a decent (if melodramatic) adventure, you can’t help but squirm at the hateful (and historically dubious) propaganda being dished out.

I mean, in the end it's the Klan coming to the rescue on white (of course) horses, to save white women from fates "worse than death" and white men from the vengeance of them uppity freed slaves.

If you're at all interested in American film, history or the long, sad ocean of racism we're all swimming in, see this film. It's occasionally a long hard slog, but ultimately worth seeing.

Censor it? Hide it from view like a particularly ugly child? No. Rather it should be seen and discussed openly. It would be a start...

And speaking of racism, it has been a long, strange trip, hasn’t it? From Birth of a Nation to American Gangster, which I also caught recently, and is probably played at a multiplex near you.

Once again, the theme of American racism and its attitude towards blacks and lawlessness are explored, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Anyone who whines that nothing's changed in the almost hundred years since Birth was made is someone who probably needs to examine his own issues with race -- or has a vested interest in Racism, Inc.

Birth of a Nation was breath-taking in its hate, depicting blacks as little better than animals (the black congress scene is right out of a white supremacist's nightmare and so over-the-top it's tempting to laugh it off -- almost). American Gangster, by contrast, is a finely wrought, morally ambiguous, extremely nuanced film that raises questions instead of proffering slack-jawed hatred.

In the guise of a typical rags-to-riches success story, wrapped up in a flag by far more than simply its title, this flick charts the real life journey of Frank Lucas who, in the seventies, became the druglord of New York City. Sure, there’s racism here (everyone assumes Lucas is working for somebody), but anyone looking for the simplistic hate-mongering of Birth of a Nation just isn’t going to find it here. Instead, we get a rich, character study of two oddly moral men in professions where such moral conviction aren't always expected. Denzel Washington, in an role that's pure Oscar bait, is a buttoned down, self-driven black man who inherits the Harlem drug trade from his former boss through a mixture of cold-blooded violence and good ol' American business savvy, ultimately building a vast empire by smuggling heroin in the coffins coming in regularly from Vietnam (Frank Lucas, father of globalization?).

Pitted against the stick-up-his-ass Lucas is New Jersey Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a heavy set mess of a man, going through a nasty divorce and custody battle, a loose cannon and self-centered womanizer whose own personal (and often misguided) sense of ethics nonetheless rivals that of Frank's.

Black? White? Hah! The sheer vastness and range of grays in this film are staggering. The closest the film comes to a simplistic character is one crooked NY cop whose pure, unadulterated wrongness is the one false note I could spot -- and yet even his dramatic preposterousness is ultimately at least artistically justified when you read the epilogue's stats on police corruption in the era and realize that cops like him almost had to exist.

And that's not even the best part of the epilogue -- there's one final sucker punch in the wrap-up that will have you shaking your head, and almost laughing out loud at a especially ironic twist of fate.

That's how engaging this film is -- after a couple of hours of treachery, violence (mostly dealt with quickly) and plowing through an ocean of moral ambiguity and outright corruption, you end up identifying -- whether you want to or not -- with both leads, even as you despair at their very real flaws, and the sheer cost in lives and moral wear and tear of their ambitions and convictions.

Let's make this clear -- like David Simon's masterful The Wire, this film does NOT glorify the drug trade. Yos and other brain-dead wannabes going to see Denzel as a bad ass bling bling gangstas are going to be solely disappointed -- in one pivotal scene, Lucas puts such buffoons firmly in their place. Nor is it a heavy-handed thumbs-up for the ideals of law enforcement -- the whole notion of effectiveness and justification of the then-new War on Drugs is called into question at one point by Richie -- and indeed, by the entire film.

And that's the real point: American Gangster raises questions. Hard, intelligent questions. Questions we should all be asking.

Birth of a Nation gave answers. Stupid, slack-jawed answers.

But man, I'm glad I saw both these films. These are both films worth seeing, and well worth discussing.

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