To the Editors of the CRIMSON:
In answer to your lament over the demise of "Birth of a Nation" may I say that it deserved to die? All of these things are matters of degree as Justice Douglas pointed out in the "released-time" decision. Now while I am with you all the way in the cases of "Oliver-Twist," "Devil in the Flesh," and "The Miracle," I think that the film you mourn goes far south of that borderline which divides mere bad taste from bigotry and race hatred. Each case should be decided on its particular merits. "Birth of a Nation" has few. At least too few to justify its public showing in Boston:
First of all the picture's keynote is not mere eloquent praise of a colorful fraternity in white sheets, but rather a virulent form of White Racism, of which the Klan is a symbol. The Negro is pictured throughout as a thief and a low-life, whose only intent as a Freedman is rapine of his former masters and the physical possession of Caucasion virgins. If such a theme could cause riots fifty years after Reconstruction, there is no reason why it cannot, and does not, cause violent emotions today. At least the Solid South does not look upon Griffith's opus as a delightful historical pageant, but rather takes it as a credo and a profession of the White Man's Supremacy, and the need for that supremacy to assert itself--lest it all happen again. After recent "race" incidents in Detroit, St. Louis, Cicero, Cairo, Ill., and San Francisco, one should not say that Northern audiences are much more objective. I have my doubts about Boston.
Secondly, on grounds of artistry and originality I'll have to plead de gustibus--I thought "Birth of a Nation" was a lousy movie; crude, childish, violent, and farcical in its most "dramatic" moments. Sure it has Griffith's panning technique and a couple of great battlefield scenes, but why not cut these out and show them as slides? Or go see "The Red Badge of Courage," which is about fifty times as good. Filling in the lacunae of a few cinema snobs does not justify the risk of vilifying a race, or pandering to prejudices that are already on the verge of running riot. A burning cross is also a work of art; but at certain times and in certain places it is neither beautiful nor entertaining.
"Tolerance" (obnoxious word) is also a matter of degrees and not kind. Would the CRIMSON open its advertising columns to a Cross & Flag diatribe against Jews and Catholics? Would President Conant tolerate a KKK meeting in the Yard? Would Mayor Hines let the Common be used for purposes of race assassination? Tolerance does not include tolerance of the intolerable, as you seem to believe. And as for the NAACP, it has well-earned its right to be intolerant: intolerant of regents who keep Negroes out of Southern colleges; intolerant of hanging judges in any region; intolerant of segregation in the Army and Navy; intolerant of any kind of injustice towards a great American minority. If the NAACP is intolerant enough to spoil one evenings pleasure for us, that is its privilege. Because during the other 364 days it was doing our hand-to-hand fighting, while we were home in bed or watching a movie. It at least has a right to be indignant about college editors who compare it to the American Legion.
"Birth of a Nation" has happily been buried by Boston's censor. It's the first decent or sane thing he has ever done. At least give him credit for doing the right thing, if for the wrong reason. You can always see "My Son John.".... Franklin T. Laskin, Yale Law School '54
A glance at the conditions under which "Birth of a Nation" would have been shown casts doubt on Mr. Laskin's fears. The Boston Cinema Society selects films for their artistics excellence and for their contribution to moving-picture techniques. There is no reason to believe that a small group devoted to these artistics interests would break into a riot, regardless of the sentiments which a film might inspire.