Friday, March 16, 2012

I watched Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation, as you may know, is a silent film about the Civil War and its aftermath that was made in 1915 by famed director D.W. Griffith. His father was a Confederate soldier, and his film glorifies white supremacy. Many people have said that it is a "great" film, not because of its racist content but because of its film-making techniques. Having finally seen the film, I feel ambivalent about that viewpoint. It is a stirring piece of propaganda, no question. It draws you in. I assume that Griffith not only felt strongly about the end of African-American slavery, but also had the skills needed to present his feelings accurately on film. Both the passion and the knowledge are required: in this case, I don't see how you can separate them.

This film is a peerless exercise in world-building: the construction of an alternate reality. There is nothing sloppy or superficial about it. As a Yankee, I've never really been exposed to these concepts before - certainly not with such heartfelt conviction. And sadly, I now see echoes of the film in our modern race relations. For example, if you believe that the sole purpose of the KKK was self-defense against marauding blacks, then there is a direct link between that and the recent killing of Trayvon Martin. (As it happens, the town where that killing took place traces its history of racial tension all the way back to 1911.)

But back to the film. Birth of a Nation is three hours long; the first hour depicts the war itself, and the next two hours cover Reconstruction and the rise of the Klan. The first hour moves quite slowly (the war scenes especially are not what we've come to expect in a war movie) but after that it picks up and gets more exciting. I like silent films, so I perhaps have more tolerance for old-fashioned film techniques than most people. One of the interesting things about silent film is that the characters talk all the time - you see them having conversations, you just don't hear what they're saying. And in this film especially, it would have been nice to know what was being said in some of those scenes. Did the actors have lines to learn?

There is no way I can convey the scope of this film, the breadth and depth of its fearful imagination and sheer implausibility. I can only focus on a few things that most struck me:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Southwestern Chickpea Salad

I love chickpeas.  They're one of my most favorite things in the world.  Hummus! Falafel! Chana masala! But they're also great in salads - either as a salad base, or as just one ingredient.  Here's something I threw together:

3 cups raw chickpeas (you can use canned if necessary, but freshly-cooked chickpeas are so much better.)
1 lb. tomatoes
1/2 lb. poblano chiles, or other mild chile pepper.
1 red onion
garlic to taste
fresh cilantro to taste
1 tsp. cumin seed - whole or ground
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup vinegar and/or lime juice
1 tsp. dried oregano
salt and black pepper to taste

Soak the chickpeas overnight (sort through them first!) Drain, put in a large pot and cover with fresh water.  Cook for about two hours, until soft.

Meanwhile, roast the chile peppers in oven or broiler, until they are soft and the skin is blistered all over.  Let cool, then peel and chop.  Mince the onions and place in a large bowl.  (Hold off on chopping the chiles and other vegetables for now.)

Optional: if using whole cumin seeds, roast them first by heating 2 tbl. oil in a small skillet and adding the seeds.  Let cool - and deglaze the pan with vinegar.

When chickpeas are done, drain them and pour them over the onions, while still hot.  Let them cool a bit, then add all other ingredients.  Mix well, cover, and let marinate overnight.  Serve with tortilla chips or pita bread.