Opinion: Amazon removes The Birth of a Nation

NB.  I am not going to give a summary here of the 1915 Civil War epic Birth of a Nation or why it is such a notoriously racist film.  If you are not aware of the film, you probably won’t be reading this post anyway, but information on it is available in many places, and the Wikipedia page isn’t a bad place to begin. 

A few years ago, I had a clear-out of some films and music that I no longer wanted and sold them on eBay and Amazon Marketplace.  Amazon Marketplace is a bit unusual because, even when you’ve sold something, the listing remains but is “inactive” – presumably because many sellers there are businesses who get stock back in repeatedly.  Anyway, one item I decided I no longer needed or wanted as I was no longer teaching was the blu ray of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  And so it was sold, but the listing remained “inactive.” 

Zoom forward to about ten days ago, and I got an email from Amazon, telling me that the version of Birth of a Nation I had been selling three years ago was being removed from the Amazon site, and so gave instructions how to delete that old listing, which I did.   But I was curious – why would the Eureka edition of the film be deleted from Amazon UK?  Even when something goes out of print, the selling page stays open.  When I went on to Amazon to have a snoop around, I found out that the BFI blu ray of the film in the UK and the Kino blu ray in America had also been deleted.  In short, the three in-print versions of the film on blu ray were deleted from the website. 

It wasn’t that Amazon had simply stopped selling them (or they had gone out of print) and the item was unavailable, but that the selling pages were taken down entirely.  Also gone is the streaming of the film on Amazon UK. When I started writing this piece, the Kino version was still available for streaming on Amazon.com.  That now, too, appears to have gone.  I should also add that, at the time of publishing this post, the BFI’s own online shop seemingly no longer has a page for their blu ray edition of the film, although the movie is available to stream via BFI Player.

To try to avoid angry comments saying I’m making it all up, at this point I am going to make it perfectly clear, selling pages still exist for public domain issues of Birth of a Nation on DVD, as well as the out-of-print Twilight Time edition.  But the major releases are gone entirely. 

Interestingly, there has been no reports about this in the media (that I can find), and silent film fan forums and Facebook groups are generally quiet on the subject – some of the Facebook groups don’t even allow a mention of Birth of a Nation, they see it as that problematic.  But, even so, when Gone with the Wind was withdrawn from some streaming platforms for a few days a month or two back, it was everywhere in the news.  The same is true when The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers was also withdrawn from a streaming service for a short time.   So, it seems rather odd that this decision by Amazon about possibly the most notorious film in cinematic history results in no mention at all.

Now, anyone who has chatted to me about films or, indeed, read some of the posts from this blog in the past or Twitter comments etc will know that I generally have no time for D. W. Griffith.  I confess I admire the ambition of Intolerance and find it an entertaining movie, but beyond that I find that his films are a bore made by a boor. 

Birth of a Nation is a putrid film, and the fact that, for so many years, it was a core element of silent film courses at universities is, at best, unfortunate.  It wasn’t on the silent film course I took during my BA in 2005, but I know that it was during later years at the same university under different course organisers.   

While I am, for the most part, overjoyed that the most famous store in the world is dropping the most racist film in history, I do still have reservations. The film is never going to go away, but at least the three blu ray editions that are involved are the best ones on the market, and do not shy away from the realities of the film and the effects it had on society in the decades after it was issued.  As foul as the film is, it is an important part of 20th Century history, and the blu rays tend to present it as the museum piece it should now be viewed as, with a great deal of extraneous information, documentaries etc to contextualise it and inform the viewer of its major part in the resurgence of the KKK in the decades after its release. That isn’t the case for those seeking the film out on YouTube, for example.

In fact, why is the film still on a platform like YouTube? It clearly goes against the policies that they outline on their site, and surely the film is more problematic as a free-to-view stand-alone video rather than as part of a blu ray package with documentaries and a booklet to contextualise it?   If there was a choice, I would rather see it removed from YouTube than have the physical products removed from Amazon – after all, the current various incarnations on YouTube have reached half a million views, whereas sales of the title on disc would be a small fraction of that. What’s more, it’s free on YouTube, meaning people are much more likely to see it there than pay £10-£20 for the privilege (although I agree that it’s a cheaper way for students to see it if their fiend of a unit organiser insists on including it on on the syllabus).

I guess that I am actually surprised by Amazon’s decision, and even more surprised that there was no big announcement for the media with it.  Has Amazon stopped selling the film because they have a moral conscience?  That would be a nice thought, but it seems odd for a company that is alleged to have not paid anything like its fair share of taxes and which has been severely criticised for its working conditions to suddenly get a conscience over a film that was made in 1915.   And one cannot say it is a publicity stunt either – as there has been no publicity.  The removal of these selling pages was done quietly and with no fanfare.  Indeed, prior to writing this article, I checked Google to see if the move by Amazon had gained more publicity, but it hasn’t.  I would also be less surprised had this happened, say, six or eight weeks ago when the Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak, as a way of, perhaps, pre-empting any calls to have the film removed.   But that isn’t the case either.  But, as W. S. Gilbert wrote for H.M.S. Pinafore, “never mind the why and wherefore.”  It has happened.

Many people will no doubt say, “but where will this end?” Indeed, when I raised the Amazon move over on a  forum last week, some of the responders essentially asked this same question. 

A myth seems to have been built up in the last year or so that “cancel culture” is real.  It isn’t.  To my knowledge, no books or films or music have been somehow banned simply because much of the population is far more sensitive to how other people feel than they were a decade ago.  Birth of a Nation hasn’t been banned – or “cancelled” if you’re down with the middle-aged, often-affluent, white men, with steam coming out of their ears, who get in a huff at the thought of other people getting some of the power in society that they used to have.   

There are those that say that, if we remove Birth of a Nation, then other films reflecting attitudes of the times in which they were made will follow.  But there is a huge difference between Gone with the Wind’s grossly distorted view of history or Jolson in blackface and Birth of a NationGone with the Wind and Jolson might have elements we view as racist, but Birth of a Nation encouraged racism.  It was propaganda for the racist community, and that is a far different situation. 

One thing that isn’t up for debate is just how much things have changed and how far we have come in the last five years (and mostly in the last year).  Kino, the British Film Institute, and Eureka video all released new, deluxe editions of Birth of a Nation in and around 2015 to tie in with the film’s 100th birthday.  It is quite clear that none of these companies would be likely to produce such a release in 2020 – indeed, I doubt if there will ever be a new release of the film from any major label in the future, even if some form of new technology comes along and takes the place of blu rays and streaming. I won’t be shedding any tears about that.

I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s opinions on the matter, so please feel free to leave a comment. 

NB. The Eureka and Kino editions of Birth of a Nation are still available from these labels’ websites. The BFI no longer appears to have a page on their online store for the film.

Birth of a Nation: Happy 100th Birthday?

BOAN

D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.

On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film.  This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.

And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.

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Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.

In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.

How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.

But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind.  No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier.  Why do we show it to them?  I have no idea.  Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915.  As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.

More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.

So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.