April 9th, 2010

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Controversy given 'Birth' in Rome

Nearly two years ago, we wrote an entry on the Capitol Theater in Rome, N.Y., a great old movie house whose annual classic film festival featured the 1928 Carole Lombard movie "Show Folks" (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/122832.html). The venue is back in the news, having to do with an upcoming showing of one of the most popular -- and controversial -- movies ever made.

We're referring to "The Birth Of A Nation," D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic that the Capitol will show April 17 in a 35 mm color-tinted version restored by New York's Museum of Modern Art. (That's Griffith's re-creation of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.) It will be projected at the correct speed of 19 frames per second, a speed slower than the present-day standardized “sound speed” of 24 frames-per-second. Avery Tunningley will provide music at the Capitol’s 1928 Möller theatre organ. Tunningley will be playing his own arrangement of the score composed for the movie in 1915 by Joseph Carl Breil.

All in all, a cinematic experience comparable to how people viewed it in the mid-teens...and one would think that Jane Alice Peters, the future Lombard who was age seven in the fall of 1915, probably saw "A Birth Of A Nation."

However, "The Birth Of A Nation," though a certain cinematic spectacle that advanced film storytelling and technique, has many sordid aspects. Chief among them is its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and its racist treatment of blacks. (The film was based on a book called "The Clansman.") At the time, the NAACP and other groups protested the film, and when the Capitol announced its plans to show it, many in Rome's black community decried the decision.

There will be a panel discussion following the film to examine its racist aspects in the context of the time. The theater's executive director, Art Pierce, added that under recommendation from some concerned about the film, those under 16 will not be able to view it without being accompanied by a parent or guardian.

“We are not showing this film to create racial unrest. In fact, we feel that by showing 'The Birth of a Nation' and examining and exposing the racist aspects of it we have the opportunity to better understand the history of racism in our country," Pierce said.

The film has been available on video and DVD for some time, and has even been featured on Turner Classic Movies -- albeit accompanied with discussion over its racism.

For additional information, go to the theater's Web site at http://www.romecapitol.com.
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