Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch:
Griffith and Ellington mirrored America’s democratic dimension by evoking the fundamental tension between the individual and the collective. They both drew broadly from the culture around them: from biblical themes, fairy tales, newspaper stories, the surrealism of cartoons, and so on. They both composed in long, broken lines that had the up-and-down sensation of a roller coaster. Just as Griffith mastered the art of resequencing individual moments of performance into compelling stories, Ellington figured out how to feature his soloists within a complementary context, placing each new improvised solo where the arrangement made it sound better, allowing the improviser to supply the special effect of well-thought-out spontaneity to the written music. They embraced the powers that endlessly rocked in the cradle of the past, whether true or mythic or simply poetic, but never flinched in the face of modern life as it was lived, from the suites to the streets.
And yet, of course, there was a difference. D.W. Griffith’s greatest personal stunt was both a technically revolutionary work of art and a misleading piece of extended-form minstrelsy: the 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, truly a black-and-white mess. Based partially on an incendiary redneck pimple of propaganda shaped into a suppurating blackhead of a novel called The Clansman, Griffith’s 1915 adaptation was the first three-hour epic. That was something in itself: audiences used to much shorter tales of love and war were glued to their seats. (As they would be, nearly a quarter century later, for Gone with the Wind. The antebellum South was a profitably hot, soothing, romantic topic.) It was also the very first blockbuster, running almost an unprecedented year in New York—the town where the very first blackface Irish American minstrels appeared to resounding popularity in 1843.
But what made The Birth of a Nation notorious was not its success or Griffith’s artistic achievements. Rather, the film marked the beginning of a new way of looking at vengeful white Southerners, not as murderous racists but as radiant rednecks who started the Ku Klux Klan’s campaign of murder and terrorism because they had no choice. After all, Griffith’s epic argued, they were the underdogs. What to do? the film asked. What to do during that dark time when the Confederate states suffered tyrannical military occupation? What to do when those states were losing their independence due to the destructive and invasive War of Northern Aggression, commonly misconstrued as the Civil War? That was the question. What were they to do?