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Talk about 'Obsession': a dismal DVD

by Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Sunday paper arrives with a thud on the front porch. After scanning the headlines, you reach for the comics. You need to have your "Opus," your "Prince Valiant" and your "Classic Peanuts" before wading into the minimum daily allowance of bad vibes.

You notice a DVD stuffed in the supplement of coupons and department store ads. The insert art is an old style movie advertisement featuring a hooded Klansman on a horse.

Your eyes widen. You didn't expect to get a copy of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" along with "Dilbert" and "Cathy."

You scan the advertisement. The 1915 silent film about the bloody anti-Reconstruction era antics of the Ku Klux Klan comes with an impressive set of blurbs extolling its importance in cinema history.

The nearly three dozen movie reviewers' opinions collected at the Web site "Rotten Tomatoes" give it a 100 percent "fresh" rating. You notice that the critics applaud it for its cinematic innovation, not its racist view of American history.

The excerpt from Roger Ebert's review catches your attention: "'The Birth of a Nation' is not a bad film because it argues for evil," Mr. Ebert writes. "Like [Leni] Riefensthal's 'Triumph of the Will,' it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about evil."

The flier also contains a blurb for the film originally attributed to President Woodrow Wilson, but long since debunked by presidential scholars: "It is like writing history with lightning."

Because President Wilson screened what would become the world's first cinema blockbuster at the White House, the film was legitimized it in the eyes of millions of Americans.

The film sparked riots by whites in cities where anxiety about "race-mixing" was high. Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis refused to screen it because it was considered too inflammatory.

What an odd insert to get in the Sunday paper 93 years later. You wonder if it has anything to do with the presidential election being weeks away and a biracial man on the top of the Democratic ticket. It's probably just a coincidence that a film decrying miscegenation and black political power is suddenly making the rounds, right?

You toss the DVD along with the rest of the inserts into the recycle bin. You don't have time to watch a three-hour long DVD decrying the evils of "black rule," no matter how esteemed its place in the history of the cinema.

In real life, there's very little chance of "The Birth of a Nation" ever being inserted into anyone's newspaper despite its pedigree as a "classic."

Everyone recognizes Griffith's film as a vile piece of racist propaganda with brilliant production values, though in the early 20th century, many viewers considered it a "documentary."

Griffith's film eroded race relations and undermined civil rights at a crucial time in American history. The NAACP launched one of its earliest protest campaigns against the film.

American Muslims feel just as strongly about an inflammatory DVD that landed on their front porches along with their Sunday papers on Sept. 14.

"Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" isn't in league of "The Birth of a Nation." Though it, too, is vile propaganda, it doesn't have innovative production values. It's lowbrow Islamophobia at its stupidest.

Millions of "Obsession" DVDs have been distributed in swing states through newspapers, including the Post-Gazette, paid for by a little-known group called the Clarion Fund. As publishers are quick to point out -- distribution does not equal editorial endorsement.

"Obsession" comes with salutary blurbs from D-list film critic Michael Medved and an executive producer of "24." A blood red banner boasts that it has been seen "by more than 20 million viewers worldwide" on CNN and Fox News.

This is supposed to give "Obsession" legitimacy. Fortunately, there are more copies of the film moldering in landfills than in DVD players across the country.

Still, many might object to what they consider a false moral equivalence here, so let's forget Griffith's film for a second. Imagine the public reaction if Father Charles Coughlin's anti-Semitic rants from the 1930s were packaged on CD and distributed during Yom Kippur, Ramadan and Christmas.

Father Coughlin's sermons were the most popular program on the radio at the time. Why not distribute them for the pure educational value of hearing what a demagogue sounds like?

I'm no Nostradamus, but I'll bet that Jews, Muslims, Christians and nonbelievers would all be united in their indignation over that stunt.


Look for more of Tony's work in "A Fine Point," a new blog from the PG editorial page:

Tony Norman can be reached at or 412-263-1631. More articles by this author

Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.

Quran: 3:104
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