Thoughts On: “The Birth of a Nation”

Since this article turned out to be longer than I expected, I’ve organized it with a handy-dandy table of contents:

Intro
Modern Critiques of the Film
History and, Yes, Context
Epic Filmmaking
1915 Audiences and The Birth
Final Thoughts

Birth of a Nation famous charge pose

Slowly but surely, 2015 is beginning to draw to a close. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, and for people interested in film history, it’s been a year with a certain significance. And no, I’m not talking about the new Star Wars movie (not this time, that is).

February 8, 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s towering epic The Birth of a Nation. A century ago that one film solidified the idea of “moving pictures” as a bona fide art form and set the standards for blockbusters to come. For some blindingly obvious reasons, this anniversary hasn’t exactly been greeted with cake and balloons, but there has been some renewed attention paid to the film. A number of articles earlier this year swirled around the anniversaries of its premiere and release, and it’s been the focus of quite a few online discussions in the silent film community. (Yes, there’s a silent film community. Yes, we’re into the kind of obscurity that hipsters with tiny scarves can only dream of.)

So I think it’s worth stepping back, examining the film in depth, studying its history, comparing analyses from past decades and today, and trying to wrap our head around The Birth of a Nation.

Modern Critiques of the Film

Birth of a Nation new yorker headline

In earlier decades, discussions of the film centered largely around its technical achievements. There was some discussion of its racism, but not as much as we’ve come to expect. In some cases a few overly-fervent writers even went out of their way to defend Griffith’s choices. Writer William K. Everson, for instance, argued that Griffith had “displayed considerable restraint” in his depiction of black people–when you compared it to the hysterical Thomas Dixon novel that inspired the film, that is. Which is rather like saying massive second degree burns are at least not third degree burns.

But in recent times the pendulum has swung to the opposite direction. Brief mentions of The Birth‘s technical achievements are a distant second to the discussion of its racism, which today can shock us to the point where even film history classes hesitate to screen the film. (And with the rise of overly-sensitive college students wanting “trigger warnings” just in the past few years, this…probably isn’t going to change much.)

It’s also become the one film that many modern writers are obviously uncomfortable discussing. Even though The Birth of a Nation has practically been nominated for the dictionary definition of “racism,” I often get the sense that writers feel they need to mention it as often as possible, lest one mention too few might offend someone. Even the smallest, most matter-of-fact references to the film will squeeze in a mention–sometimes to an awkward effect. Take a look at this sentence from the book Working-Class Hollywood: “Griffith left [Biograph] and went on to produce such epic and racist productions as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.” Never mind that Intolerance has nothing to do with racism!

Even some silent film fans aren’t wild about discussing it. When Roger Ebert wrote his review, he admitted something that I’m sure many people could sympathize with: “It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith’s Broken Blossom in the first Great Movies collection, but have only now arrived at Birth of a Nation. I was avoiding it.”

So with all the controversy, why do we keep discussing this Edwardian blockbuster? Yes, it was very big back in the day, and yes, it did influence a lot of other directors…but of all the decidedly non-PC films that were made back then (and they are Legion), why does this one keep getting stubbornly lauded as a masterpiece?

Here’s the deal: if you are a film fan–and I’m talking a film fan familiar with a wide variety of genres from a variety of eras, especially one who’s watched a good chunk of silent films–when you sit down to watch The Birth of a Nation something happens. Depending on what your mindset is going into it, you get either the surprising or the uncomfortable feeling that, huh…this is a well-made film. This really looks like the Civil War period. And that splendid battle scene is amazingly epic for its time. And that big rescue at the end is ideologically horrific…and exciting. Good heavens, this ancient film is exciting!…Crud.

And thus, we continue to discuss it, because a 100-year-old film that has the power to excite us in this day and age when anything is possible through the grace of CGI is a film that’s going to stick around. As one critic wrote, it’s “a towering achievement that may be denounced but will never be ignored.”

History and, Yes, Context

A Matthew Brady photograph. Image credit: the Milda Burns collection

Since you can hardly discuss The Birth of a Nation effectively without examining its historic context, I say taking a look is 100% essential. Now, let me be clear: there are a few people out there who would claim that “knowing the context” will scrub away the film’s objectionable nature. This is not what we’re going to do here. We’re going to study this film’s context so we can put aside our 21st century goggles and gain some insight into history, for better and for worse. If you’d like to start with a synopsis of the film, here’s a nice one at Wikipedia.

The ideology of The Birth of a Nation was not unique to Griffith–not by a long shot. It was based on the idea of the “Lost Cause,” which upheld an idealized portrait of the “Old South.” This portrait dates from before the Civil War, and evolved even more during the last decades of the 19th century as Southern writers tried to come to terms with the conflict. White society was portrayed as cultured and genteel, while slaves were said to be well-treated and content. According to the “Lost Cause,” the Southerners had fought bravely to preserve their beloved homeland even though the odds were stacked against them. The Reconstruction era was largely frowned upon, and the horrors of slavery were glossed over.

In addition, from the 1890s onward many regarded the Reconstruction from the viewpoint of William Archibald Dunning. His books claimed that the era had been a time of injustice toward the South, when newly-freed blacks, carpetbaggers and “scalawags” spread corruption willy-nilly before finally being defeated by the genteel whites. (Starting to sound familiar after reading that Wikipedia synopsis?)

By the early 20th century, the “gallant South” was a part of popular culture. As you can imagine, while the “Lost Cause” appealed to Southerners and stirred the sympathies of the Northerners, it was hardly helpful to black Americans.

Picnic in the Old South, Pierre Brissaud, 1934.

1915 was a big deal since it marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil War–which Griffith was obviously strongly aware of. Civil War films had been very popular in general–Griffith had made a number of them during his Biograph days, such as In the Border States (1910) and The House With Closed Shutters (1910). He had always been inspired by his childhood memories of his father, Confederate colonel “Roaring Jake” Griffith, who had told many stories of his wartime exploits. He was also passionate about the idea of using film to “see” history.

When he was introduced to the Thomas Dixon novel The Clansman (a novel literally written to defend white supremacy), Griffith was taken by its images of Ku Klux Klan members riding to the rescue “with their white robes flying.” While today the idea of a heroic Klan riding to the rescue of suffering whites is too ludicrously offensive for even The Onion to satirize, Griffith apparently felt the image was powerful enough for him to twist the dark history of the then-mostly defunct Klan and turn them into the “good guys.” (I can only explain this by assuming that the original Klan must not have had the exact same stigma that it does today.) Not only would this provide his film with an exciting climax, but I would argue that it provided a way to have the South seem to “triumph” after all. This tied in nicely with the dominant ideas of the Lost Cause and Reconstruction and ended the film on a reassuring high note. “Instead of saving one poor little Nell of the Plains,” Griffith once said, “this ride would be to save a nation.”

So when we watch his The Birth of a Nation, what we’re seeing is an idea of history that was widespread at the time. We’re also seeing a dash of romanticism (even noted by a couple critics back then) common in those days. And yes, all of this is underscored by confident, ingenious filmmaking.

Epic Artistry

Some silent film fans argue that the technical achievements of The Birth of a Nation should be given more focus nowadays, rather than just the ongoing debate on its racism. I agree to a point, but I think that’s easier said than done. Griffith’s direction was, after all, in service of the story, and especially in service of stirring sympathy/anger toward various characters. Still, studying The Birth’s technical aspects is key to wrapping our heads around its importance…and truthfully, it’s hard not to see the beauty of its cinematography.

Griffith took great care to set up his story and introduce his characters in the first half of the film–the smoothest and most engaging of the two halves. In the beginning we have the genteel Camerons, dressed to the nines, living in an inviting plantation home. The camera lingers on puppies and kittens snoozing next to father Cameron’s feet. Flowers and lush foliage fill in the compositions of the early shots of Piedmont, where the sun shines down on women strolling with parasols and contented slaves tipping their hats. The Stonemans’ Northern home is equally idyllic (there’s even another kitten). These characters are fleshed out in various little vignettes, such as the eldest Cameron son teasing his little sister and the younger sons of both families getting in a good-natured scuffle.

When war breaks out, the families are torn apart by death and hardship, summed up in both epic images (the lurid red burning of Atlanta) and subtle ones (the Cameron women shown wearing plain dresses handmade from cheap cloth).

The showpiece is certainly the vast battle of Petersburg, jawdropping even today–more jawdropping, actually, since it’s all done with real extras, real horses, and real pyrotechnics on a massive scale. The flow of the action, from extreme long shots lingering over the battle to medium shots of the Little Colonel to long shots of the battle charge are done so smoothly that even the most jaded viewer will become glued to the screen. In a sense, the Petersburg scenes have never aged.

Equally engrossing is the impressively long climax of the film, where the Klan races to “save” Piedmont and the Cameron family. Griffith milks these scenes for every drop of drama and excitement they’re worth, crosscutting furiously between the Klan on their galloping horses, the black militias, Piedmont, and the endangered Cameron family. That these scenes are still exciting today when the point is to root for the Ku Klux Klan really shows the surprising power of film editing.

1915 Audiences and The Birth

It’s no surprise that audiences in 1915 went wild for The Birth of a Nation. While films of various genres and levels of excitement were familiar to many people (usually in the form of one- to three-reelers), having that amount of drama, excitement, and romance on such a huge canvas was mindblowing. One critic for the New York Evening Journal proclaimed, “It is not only worth riding miles to see, but it is worth walking miles to see.”

There are more reasons why the film had such great appeal at that time. It drew upon familiar “Old South” stock characters, such as courtly Southerners, loyal black servants, and shameless carpetbaggers, thus appealing to general audiences raised on melodrama. It had fine acting and claimed to be showing well-researched “history,” appealing to the intellectual crowd. It managed to reflect on contemporary matters with its one-sided treatment of interracial marriage. And a lot of today’s writers still note the power of scenes such as the Little Colonel being drawn inside his home by his mother and sister’s welcoming arms. And I’d say there’s one more key element that isn’t always widely discussed: the talent of Griffith’s familiar stock company.

Being a huge fan of Biograph and its wonderful actors like Lillian, Mae and Wally (that is, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Henry B. Walthall), for me it’s strange to think of all the people who watch this film today without really “knowing” them, seeing them only as remote faces from a distant era. These actors would’ve been familiar friends to many moviegoers, and their onscreen charisma is still strong if you’re willing to see it (especially the charisma of Walthall, Gish, Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper). They help us connect to the Camerons and Stonemans as real people, and the film would be far less effective without them.

Of course, as appealing as The Birth of a Nation was, even in 1915 its depiction of blacks did indeed arouse a lot of controversy–among the black community and discerning whites alike. I’ve seen one film magazine with two reviews side by side–one lauding the film for its artistry, the other conceding its artistry but still wondering if it could “incite race prejudice.”

Newspapers and trade magazines often reported on attempts to censor or ban the film. While there was success in some areas, much of the time it probably served only to give the film more publicity.

From The Lima News, Lima, Ohio, December 3 1915.

From The Lima News, Ohio, December 3, 1915.

Today, you often hear of riots that broke out around the film in the Teens. There were indeed a couple out-of-control protests in Boston and Philadelphia (in one instance a rock was thrown through a window, leading to chaos). However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that many protests involved cordial letter campaigns and peaceful mass meetings in churches and other public places, where these communities solidly stayed the course even in the face of a losing battle.

Final Thoughts

I’m hoping that by this point one thing is clear: the amount we can learn from The Birth of a Nation is astounding. It not only a huge achievement of filmmaking but a time capsule of a pre-PC era. To better understand it means we need to study a wealth of Civil War history, pseudo-history, multiple aspects of American culture, early 20th century social issues and of course a great deal of film history…for starters. (The amount of info I had to wade through for this article alone…!) Its controversial images are a powerful tool for studying the early 20th century and how we can learn from past wrongs. You could teach entire college courses revolving around this film…if any students are willing to let themselves learn from it, that is. (Nowadays, that’s an “if” in letters thirty stories tall.)

As Melvyn Stokes wrote in his book on Griffith’s epic: “the film has not changed; what has changed is the world around it.” The disturbing aspects of The Birth of a Nation are always going to be discussed, probably always at the expense of its artistry, but maybe we should take these endless debates as a good sign. We can only hope that in the future this film will continue to be seen, continue to be debated…and continue to be controversial.

Trivia:

  • Prior to The Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman had been a popular–and very controversial–play, which Griffith was probably familiar with.
  • The Birth was a roadshow attraction, meaning that it toured with its own orchestra much like a play.
  • Despite many rumors to the contrary, this was not the first film screened at the White House. Cabiria was shown there months earlier, and even that was preceded by several other films.
  • In the Lincoln assassination scene, the theater was replicated in as much detail as possible, including the exact play that Lincoln saw that night with the actors quoting the very lines he would’ve heard before being shot.
  • Walter Long, who played the black man Gus, is the same Walter who would go on to play several “tough guy” characters in Laurel and Hardy shorts.
  • Audiences adored the scenes where the sentry sighs longingly after the beautiful Lillian. No one could remember the name of the bit player until Lillian met him years later; his name was apparently William Freeman.
  • Henry B. Walthall suggested the scene where the little sister decorates her humble dress with strips of cotton.
  • The original Klan was a dark vigilante organization that tried to restore white supremacy by targeting blacks and Republicans. It was mostly defunct by the 1910s although it started to revive in 1915. The second Klan was a fraternal organization that was made up of Protestant whites and was against immigrants, Catholics, blacks, and Jewish people. While The Birth of a Nation was not the only factor in the new Klan’s rise, leader William J. Simmons would obviously take advantage of its popularity.
  • Contrary to many articles on The Birth of a Nation, Griffith did not “invent” various innovations like the iris shot, cross-cutting, etc. single-handedly. The evolution of film art was a collective effort by dozens of directors across the world, and film became sophisticated remarkably early on. However, I would argue that he still utilized them for The Birth wonderfully well, and that this doesn’t take away from its effectiveness as a whole.
  • Historian John Bengtson has a mindblowing piece of trivia for you: several of the huge oak trees visible in the mighty battlefield scenes still stand in the Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills cemetery today.

Main Sources:

Brown, Karl. Adventures with D.W. Griffith, ed. Kevin Brownlow. London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Ross, Stephen K. Working-Class Hollywood: Sielnt Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

And most importantly,

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007.

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26 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “The Birth of a Nation”

  1. Wonderful job, Lea. I know you will get lots of comments on this one. The times we live in today are such that writing an article on BOAN can be tatamount to walking in a minefield, it seems. 🙂 I congratulate you for such a well-written and well-balanced article!

    I’m a great fan of Griffith, but The Birth…My personal response has been a blend of curiosity, admiration, and disgust. But the disgust wins out by a long shot. Speaking as a Southerner, I’ve never felt a sympathy for the “lost cause” and am at a loss to understand it even. And when all is said and done, this film glorifies in no uncertain terms a terrorist organization that murdered thousands of innocent black citizens, that burned houses with entire families inside… That’s a very hard to to try to look past.

    I think you end on an excellent point—that this is a film that should continue to be seen, discussed, and debated. Only in that way can we come to terms with it and appreciate it for what it is.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful piece of writing.

    • Thank you for reading, Donnie! This one took quite a bit of thought and care. I think everyone interested in silent film–or even film in general–needs to see The Birth of a Nation. You always hear that times were harsher back then–but it’s one thing to hear it, and much more powerful to actually see it with our own eyes. Sure, this film makes people uncomfortable…but that’s a good thing, if you know what I mean. I’ve read various 1910s discussions and defenses of the film that argued it “wasn’t very objectionable,” if you can imagine.

  2. A fascinating article, BUT…
    “of all the decidedly non-PC films that were made back then (and they are Legion)”
    Birth of a Nation wasn’t merely “non-PC”. It was – like its source novel – deliberately and consciously racist. So much so that people noticed when it was made. It played a part in the revival of the KKK.
    “Did that play of mine send out. Certain men the English shot? ” Yeats wondered. Griffiths had – or should have had – the deaths of men who were murdered on his conscience.

    • Well, my “decidedly non-PC” phrase was meant to be a humorous understatement, but I get your point. As far as being “deliberately” racist…I didn’t go much into Griffith’s personal views (believe me, each section of this article could be expanded into its own series!), but I was always baffled by his insistence that he wasn’t “against” blacks in any way and was merely presenting “history” from a Southern viewpoint. This seems due to two things: the widespread pro-South views of the Lost Cause and Reconstruction, and the widespread paternalistic attitude toward black Americans. Any discrepancy between the idea of blacks being “simplistic” and reality seems to have been chalked up to them having “advanced” since Civil War times (I think Griffith even said as much). This isn’t meant to be a defense of Griffith, but some explanation for the paradox of him having made BOAN and then drawn back in horror at being called a racist.

      As far as the idea that murders should’ve been on his conscience…well, as another film blogger has pointed out, this type of argument gets us into the same shaky territory as “violent video games cause school shootings.” I would shy away from that route, myself. I would recommend reading Melvyn Stokes’s “D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation'” for an in-depth look on the film’s influence back in the day.

  3. Great post!

    It’s nice to read a balanced essay on this film since its controversial nature invites single minded opinions, not that the detractors don’t have a valid basis for the views. As ugly as the racial aspect is I do honestly believe that the progress of Hollywood filmmaking on a technical front would have been set back a few years had Griffith (who we know borrowed heavily from European cinema) not realised his ambition with this film.

    “Birth…” is not an easy film to watch so an open mind is required and certainly, while many will scoff at the “historical context” angle, this is an important one to bear in mind when watching this for the first time.

    There is no question that this film can’t be defended as a moral work but can be defended as a landmark work of 20th century cinema.

    • I agree with your points, and definitely think having an open mind is important. After all, having an open mind doesn’t equal downplaying the film’s content–not in the slightest. It means that you recognize the film is a product of its time and are willing to judge the work on its own terms, which is what we have to do with any work from any era, anyways. It’s a part of honestly assessing the past.

      I do suspect some writers might be nervous about addressing anything about The Birth of a Nation beyond its racism. It’s perfectly understandable. But the thing is, the vast majority of people who watch BOAN are people interested in film history, who already understand how controversial it is. (And if YouTube viewcounts are any indication of popularity, something like Charlie Chaplin shorts get a lot more exposure.) I think a writer can, say, have a bland discussion of BOAN’s box office stats without worrying about someone pointing fingers and shouting, “And why haven’t you mentioned the word ‘racism’ for two whole paragraphs?” 😉

      • It’s difficult NOT to discuss the racism but there is a stigma that if you praise the film you are praising this bigotry which is an egregiously pernicious accusation.

        When I reviewed the recent UK Blu-ray release (here if you’re interested http://wp.me/p2mMDp-UD 😉 ) I tried to stick to covering the film’s merits without getting bogged down with using the entire review to comment on the controversy, which I naturally had to address but not dwell on.

        The historical context is actually two-fold if you think about it: not only is it a 100 year old film but it is one which is depicting events from 50 year earlier, thus we have two sets of antiquated values under scrutiny. What seems to draw a veil over many eyes is the first point only – that “Birth” solely reflected the attitudes of 1915 (a debatable notion for sure) when Griffith’s account itself was looking back at the worse attitudes of 1865!

        Could Griffith have handled it better? Of course – but it is easy to say this with hindsight and with a more enlightened mindset to guide us in making such an evaluation. That is not to condone what he did with this film but again this was 1915 and what Griffith, rightly or wrongly, had believed to be the truth of the matter at that time.

        Society had come a long way in those 50 years, although there was still (and to this day remains) more work to do in attacking the race issue, which was demonstrated by the story and content of “Birth” and more tellingly, the upheaval it caused prior to and upon its releases from black and white audiences.

        • That two-fold context seems to be another reason why Griffith swore his film was unobjectionable–and he even says so in one of the early title cards. “This is not meant to reflect on any race today,” or something like that.

          I do think our reactions to BOAN can be seen as a sign of hope. Sure, people loved it back in the 1910s but look at how we regard it now! This is something to celebrate. (I’m not a “glass half empty” gal, not at all.)

      • Concerning MIB’s question of whether Griffith could have handled it better—in the filmed 1930 conversation with Walter Huston, he makes this astonishing and disturbing statement: “The clan at that time was needed; it served a purpose.” So it would appear that his intention was to give the clan acclaim.

        • Yes, as did Dixon’s novel. I can only assume that the original Klan, while it was seen as a dangerous vigilante organization, didn’t have as large a stigma as it does today. Especially in the light of the common pro-South views, prejudiced views, etc. that many people had. It…was what it was.

  4. Thank you for a very good and well-researched article. I was hoping you could be a bit more specific about the “technical achievements” of the movie. It seems to me that this is where the argument usually falls flat: I can point to examples of movies that came before “Birth” that have pretty much any technical effect of “Birth,” and often to examples that are better. I still think Griffith’s spectacle is rather too overdone, the battle of Petersburg is *bigger* than other (American-produced) battle sequences, and there were many, in the 1911-1915 Civil War anniversary years, but not to my mind *better,* even than those Griffith himself directed as shorts for Biograph. In far too many cases, the assertion of “technical superiority” is unexamined, and we are left with a sense of a more objectively important movie than is supportable by evidence. Why, then, did audiences think it was such a big deal? Well, as I’ve argued before, “Birth” specifically targeted middle-class audiences who mostly eschewed “flickers” as “low entertainment,” and so hadn’t witnessed the advancement of film over the previous years. It is still mostly shown to film students who have little or no familiarity with the Nickelodeon Era, and thus are inclined to over-rate it as an accomplishment. Still, I can’t take that too far: I know YOU know your stuff, and clearly you see more in the film than I do. Thank you again than, for presenting your view with sensitivity and awareness.

    • One (rather humongous) thing I somehow forgot to mention was that music was a huge factor in BOAN’s popularity. Audiences were swept away by the the film’s score and admired how nicely the songs corresponded with the emotions on the screen–not something they were used to back when musical accompaniment was usually up to the theater!

      I, too, have noticed how many modern sources don’t give enough detail on its technical achievements, which makes looking for comparing/contrasting opinions pretty frustrating. I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with my own section on the subject either, although admittedly I didn’t want this post to get too absurdly long. I definitely agree that there are certainly many pre-BOAN films that are surprisingly sophisticated and beautiful (such as Louis Feuillade’s work). Still, I don’t think this takes anything away from BOAN. It aspired to be a crowd-pleasing, exciting “historic” epic, and it achieved this wonderfully well, with the added benefit of a magnificent stock company. Other films may have less straightforward, more “sophisticated” storylines, but I for one have never agreed that a complex work is always inherently superior to a simpler one.

      Thank you so much for reading and for the thoughtful comment–I appreciate it!

      • Concerning the technical achievements of the film (and my knowledge is definitely limited in this area): it may be that in most cases Griffith wasn’t the first to use a technique; but perhaps no one else to that point had *combined* and epitomized all these advances into one big film with a riveting storyline the way Griffith did. So to my way of thinking, it was not his origination of the advances, but his use of them to perfection that made the film so captivating. Would that be a accurate statement?

        • Most definitely. One flaw in the argument of “Griffith actually didn’t invent everything so he isn’t THAT skilled” is that it implies that other directors are therefore “better”…even though they, too, were learning from each other and improving upon each other’s techniques just like Griffith.

  5. First off, my favorite line of this article: “For some blindingly obvious reasons, this anniversary hasn’t exactly been greeted with cake and balloons…”! Ha!!!! You can say that again!!!

    A year and a half ago, I watched everything I could in chronological order, a very informative exercise and experience! I started with Le Prince and Dickson and Lumiere and proceeded on from there…took me forever…..and I can tell you, when “Birth Of A Nation” came in the sequence, there was nothing previous like it!

    And there’s never been another movie like it since, even just in style. It’s all over the place, you feel like Griffith is almost giddy throwing all this information at you, history, fake history, then manipulating your emotions with kittycats and Mae Marsh, then dazzling you with action, back to a history lesson………it makes you shake your head throughout the entire movie: either from disagreement and disgust…..or from disbelief on how masterful it’s directed, filmed, and acted!

    It’s a movie like no other because you HAVE to read an article like this to understand it, put it in it’s context, appreciate it….and to know that you’re not alone in being disgusted by it!!! It’s not a movie you can just put on!.

    At this point in history….I’m happy that this movie exists. There it is, literally in black and white, there’s no escaping it, there’s no running away from it, there’s no denying it, it’s a perfect snapshot of shameful, ignorant racist attitudes from between the years 1860 and 1915 (and beyond). And the reason it’s a “perfect” snapshot is because it is a fully-realized work of art. I saw a gross racist movie directed by Harry Carey, from 1914. I forget the title, but the world’s not talking about that movie, because it’s not a work-of-art, it’s a run-of-the-mill piece of garbage. “The Birth” is a diabolical masterpiece, a monument of how fargone people can go in their thinking. A way of thinking they want to express so bad that they’ll go to great effort and expense to make THIS movie…..and then score it for a full orchestra…..they’ll even fight a Civil War over it.

    • Can’t escape it, can’t get around it–it’s there in black and white (and tints).

      You’re not alone in feeling that BOAN was something extraordinary for its time. Other films may look as good, maybe even be more sophisticated and nuanced, but are usually lacking something. Maybe their actors don’t have the same charisma, maybe the story’s a little confusing, or maybe it’s just kind of boring. There’s definitely a reason why we can’t help remembering this film and discussing it even though plenty of other racist films are basically in history’s dustbin. A “diabolical masterpiece” indeed.

  6. As everyone commented above, you made a great work with this article. Deep, brave, documented, graceful to read… And yes, Birth of a Nations is racist and all that. There’s no clue anybody could see that point in another way (except you are a Fascist, a racist or something like that). But the history of cinema is what it is and we can’t change it for more we would like it. The history of cinema has in this terribly racist film his first really important masterpiece, the movie that resumed everything that was invented in cinematic language until then and fixed it forever. We have just to admit that our beloved cinema has this terrible original sin. It would be great that it was any other classic, and we even would accept a certain degree of politically incorrect things (a certain degree that Birth of a Nation surpasses until a level it hurts). Everybody involved in any way with this art has to accept this original sin. All of us we are in debt (cinematically)with this movie, in a way or another, so we have to never forget that it was the start of a historical nightmare (rebirth of KKK, etc.). Cinema really started with a trully difficult to gulp paradox. We can’t change the history, I insist. Thank you very much for your article.

  7. I really regret I avoided Griffith’s films for so long out of fear and BOAN’s reputation, since that meant I was left no choice when TCM showed it in 2006, that night they premiered the long-lost Beyond the Rocks and several other Valentino films. My first Griffith film was really The Battle of the Sexes (1928), but that was made so far past his prime, and isn’t really representative of his true oeuvre. My stomach was in knots during BOAN, and I gasped or groaned many times. I actually wanted to throw up at several points. When I saw his other features, again avoiding them as long as possible, I thus had a very biased attitude going in. Only when I saw his brilliant Biograph shorts did I finally start to like him as a director.

    This May, I was moved to revisit BOAN, and ended up writing a seven-part series about it on my blog. Since that initial first-time shock and disgust has passed, I was able to pay more attention to the technical mastery. I’d recognized it as gripping storytelling and great filmmaking before, but the racism was too overwhelming to focus on much else. On numerous posts on my blog, I’ve stressed how I got the wrong introduction to Griffith and that I highly recommend starting with the Biograph shorts instead of the huge, sprawling, intense epics with all his Victorian preachiness and severe black and white (no pun intended) view of the world.

    I was once one of those people who goes to the opposite extreme by wanting to tear down his reputation completely and write him off as some racist hack who gets unfair credit for innovations other directors, like Lois Weber, had already developed. Now I go for a more nuanced view, not overlooking the obvious issues with his films and Griffith himself, while not completely demonizing him either. I used to belong to the now-defunct Golden Silents board, where the extremely conservative moderator was one of those people who dismisses any criticism of Griffith as being “too PC,” and goes through elaborate mental gymnastics to ignore the racism as “just how things were.”

    • Hi, Carrie-Anne. I’m with you on the Griffith Biograph shorts. I love some of the feature films as well, but it’s really the Biographs that mainly capture my interest. By the way, I was a member of Golden Silents for several years, as well! 🙂

    • Hi Carrie-Anne, glad you shared your thoughts! My “first Griffith” was Broken Blossoms–fortunately. Thus, I could see the artistic side of his work early on and it was easy to start exploring from there (Lillian’s talent was a very important bonus). The Biograph shorts are mini gems and I have a deep appreciation for his “rural dramas” as well. And I love Intolerance. It’s a big, beautiful, bloated masterpiece.

      Imagine this conundrum: Here Griffith is one of the most debated (and sometimes reviled) filmmakers ever, and my favorite silent film is probably True Heart Susie (1919). I admit that I would have a very tough time writing off the man who made True Heart Susie.

      I agree that defense of Griffith shouldn’t go to “head in the sand” extremes, and also that he shouldn’t be vilified as the Baal of Motion Pictures. Btw, I enjoyed your own posts on BOAN. You pointed out that the film wasn’t just well-made, but was using cutting edge techniques–an important distinction. We might quibble over who were the ultimate inventors of certain techniques, but ultimately what matters most is how Griffith USED them. After all, when I look at the Rembrandt I don’t think, “That hack didn’t even invent those brushes he used!”

  8. Pingback: Thoughts On: “Intolerance” | Silent-ology

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