When they heard that the Boston Cinema Society was planning to show Birth of a Nation, members of the NAACP and the Equal Rights Society began addressing fervent protests to the City Censor and mumbling ominously about picket lines. Even though the film is a great cinema classic, it does present a rabidly Southern view of the Reconstruction era, and, after all, this would never do.
The City Censor of course played his part, refusing to grant the Cinema Society a license. He argued on a technicality, but admitted that strong pressure had been brought to bear on him. And even if his verdict has only a temporary effect, few Boston theater-owners dare to flaunt pressure groups that threaten to haul out the placards and begin marching. At any rate, Birth of a Nation, scheduled for April 25-27 and widely advertised as such, has yet to grace a Boston screen this year.
No one can deny these groups the right to protest, nor the legality of their methods so long as there is no violence. Sign waving is no crime, nor is plodding to and fro before some hapless theater. But their conception of tolerance, and of how to attain it, is no less disturbing for its legality.
Censorship has had many excuses, but the ones used most often usually have something to do with the protection of some dogma--everything from. The Faith to The American Way of Life. It is disappointing therefore to find that what was once a flexible concept, tolerance, has joined the censor's list of sacrosanct doctrines. We have no quibble with advocating tolerance, a trait which many Americans lack, but lately groups like the NAACP have shorn it of much of its richest meaning. Time was when tolerance meant permitting anyone to sample whatever was thrust before him, providing that this fare was not prejudicial to the rights and privileges that a democracy ensures everyone else. But now many people are defining it as merely the absence of racial and religious discrimination, a view that is fast assuming the proportions of a strict party line.
There is no valid reason why these definitions should be contradictory. Even if a picture eloquently argues a distasteful point, such as the glory of the Klan, it neither coerces moviegoers nor deprives them of any of their rights. The broader and narrower views of tolerance clash only when professional groups and public officials attempt unjustifiably to use one to crush the other, as the NAACP, the Equal Rights Society, and City Censor Milliken are doing now.
The facts in this particular case complement this line of reasoning, for Birth of a Nation's eloquence has long since spent its teary force. None but the most bigoted Southern audience would see it for any reason other than its artistic excellence. Banning it from the screen is not only narrow-minded, but somewhat silly as well.
Yet narrowness and pettiness are not legal arguments, and if tolerance groups wish to protest Birth of a Nation, they still have every right to do so. What is so disturbing, then, is not that they rattle their placards and protest, but that their complaints have such final and immediate effects. The power of such pressure groups has reached a level where no movie of any merit is safe from accusations of bigotry, hurled by well-intentioned but shortsighted organizations. This has come about simply because the majority of moviegoers--the people who are concerned only with an evening of good entertainment--has submitted to the minority without a murmur.
So long as those whom censorship harms remain unconcerned, this minority will grow bolder and more effective. And so long as pressure groups maintain the success they enjoy now, more and more organizations--formerly useful and respected parts of society like the NAACP--will go the way of the American Legion, using censorship as a tool to further their rigid doctrines.
There is only one way to counteract the excessive power of pressure groups, and that is by defending the right to see a film as insistently as the minority opposes it. The majority, must swamp producers and local censors, for so long as all the pressure on them comes from one direction; they will always lean the same way. If there are going to be more pictures with the artistry and originality of Birth of a Nation, American moviegoers will have to be more articulate than they are now.