Lee, The Birth of a Nation
I know what you’re thinking. “Not cool, Lee, not cool. Not even as a joke.”
Well, first, this isn’t a joke. (My monster ballad Think Tank entry from a while back was at least partly in jest, but this is not.) I do actually think The Birth of a Nation should be remade, not as a joke, but as a straight-up retelling of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, or fell asleep during an American History college class screening, the plot centers around two families, one Northern, one Southern, and their relationships before and after the Civil War. Long story short, the Northerners become carpetbaggers, and the Southerners rise up in the form of the KKK to defend their land against Republicans and former slaves. The Klan lynches a black man for preying on a white woman, disperses a riot of “crazed negroes,” dispatches federal troops, and all is right with the world.
So how would a remake possibly stay close to these story elements without, you know, glorifying the Klan and racism? It’s not that much of a leap, actually. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its portrayal of former slaves as evil womanizing barbarians. That’s basically how most white Southerners saw African American males well into the 20th century, and since we now know that wasn’t exactly accurate, a remake would simply show these former slaves as they actually were: mostly innocent victims of racist vigilante justice.
That’s not what would make the remake interesting, though. When it comes to the Klansmen, and more generally, Southerners, a remake should resist the easy route of demonizing them as bloodthirsty evil rednecks. Doing so would only repeat the mistakes of the original movie: using cheap stereotypes of a particular group to rally an audience against that group. Instead, there’s a far more interesting story to be told, that of the seemingly decent, ordinary family men who turn to extraordinary acts of depravity.
I’d imagine this would be a tough movie to sell and get people to watch. But what better time than now to tell this story? We all saw the latent racism of America come out during Obama’s presidential campaign. America can’t get through this by pretending like movies like Birth of a Nation were never made and aren’t part of our past. Bring it back out, I say, and keep the title: a nation was truly born after the Civil War, and though it’s on its last legs after a long life, it’s still not dead.