Especially in his most recent works, which have increasingly taken on the qualities of essay film in their use of archive and metatext, Spike Lee has always been interested in how the history of American film and racism intersect. Speaking in a video panel for American Cinematheque moderated by Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”, Lee discussed his feelings around the discussion about and viewing of films such as “Birth Of A Nation” and “Gone With The Wind”.
“We’re cinephiles, we love movies, but we also understand how there has been a lot of false narratives in films – and, given the opportunity, we try to shine some light on that darkness that’s been out there for many many years. If you remember the opening of ‘BlacKKKlansman’, it’s from one of the greatest shots ever in cinema: Scarlett O’Hara. I think that film [Gone With The Wind] should be seen. I show ‘Birth of a Nation’ in my class – I also give it historical and social context, while talking about the things that D.W. Griffith innovated.”
The two also discuss at length Lee’s latest film, the Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” – from its use of Marvin Gaye to the decisions behind the character Paul, the character played to great acclaim by Delroy Lindo. Though it’s about Lee’s usage of archive photo surrounding the Vietnam War in “Da 5 Bloods”, one comment from Jenkins rings particularly true when considering Lee’s own usage of clips from Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind: “the images that hit really hard are the ones that you didn’t fabricate”. Lee has a long history of recontextualizing films whose racism has often gone ignored – his (rather underrated) film “Bamboozled” ending on a blistering montage telling a history of blackface in American cinema and television.
“When they showed that film when I was at NYU, they left out the fact that at the time the Klan was dormant, and this film brought life back to the Klan which directly ended up killing Black folks – but that was not taught […] when you put stuff in historical perspective… in fourth grade we had a class trip, they had just reissued ‘Gone With The Wind’, seeing Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen…myself, my other classmates, we were cringing,” Lee continues. “But no one told us, you’ve gotta talk about this stuff. I don’t think it should be banned. That’s just my opinion”.
The full discussion can be watched below – the exchange regarding “Birth of a Nation” begins at 11:55.