Tonight at Cinequest brings what may be the most controversial film at the festival, and it is almost 100 years old.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Civil War is fought and lost, and during its aftermath in the Reconstruction, the South is saved by bold, masked heroes: the Ku Klux Klan. Here is an example of the power of cinema, both as unifier and destroyer. D.W. Griffith’s silent epic invented much of the language of the movies. It was the first megahit—the most popular film for almost 20 years until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and film school classes have been deservedly apologizing for it ever since. The skeleton in the American cinema’s closet, this epic is a lesson in how heedless filmmakers can be playing with dynamite without realizing it. Griffiths’ blundering attempt to write history revived the Klan, a national horror that made the South a wasteland of lynchings during the 1920s. His follow-up, Intolerance, was a handsome apology; unfortunately, it wasn’t as popular as this opus. To provide some much-needed context for modern audiences, the film will be introduced by professor Michael Cohen, who teaches American studies and African American studies at UC-Berkeley.
Shows Feb. 27 at 7pm at the California Theatre in San Jose; tickets are $12.