Lillian Gish and Lady Gaga

We’re halfway through watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation. Not an easy movie to watch—filled with racism and revisionist history. We have been immersed in the intricacies of Reconstruction and it seemed a perfect way to discuss how the “North won the war, but the South won the peace.”  I am talking my students through the film, but their newly gained expertise is helping them to see this film for what it really is. Because it’s a silent film, we can have ongoing conversation while it plays.

There’s this scene where the character Elsie, the daughter of a northern radical republican (played by Lillian Gish) is “nursing” a Confederate soldier who is a friend of her brother’s. She is playing the banjo and singing (well, actually we can’t hear her because it is a silent film). The camera zooms in on her face as she forms the musical words and her eyes drift off into space, when GL shouts, “She looks like Lady Gaga.” Others begin to chime in with their agreement.

“No,” I say. “Really?”

So is there something similarly vampy about the two of them nearly 100 years apart? Perhaps a shared unconventionality of exaggerated and extraordinary gesture? Early silent film acting can certainly demonstrate this quality.

Or was it GL working to thoroughly distract me and the rest of the class from the already difficult conversation we were having about race and politics and the illusive nature of truth?

Hmmm… you know, I really think GL may be on to something…

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