Let me start by saying that this is a difficult film to tackle. On the one hand you try to view it as an important piece of filmmaking history, meanwhile, on the other hand, you feel so appalled by what you see that your gut reaction is simply to turn away and stop watching. The Birth of a Nation is the sort of film that will split its audience right now the middle. No one in their right mind is going to walk away from this film cheering its message (more on that later), but I am afraid that few will be able to see past the message and see the film’s technical merit within its historical context. I say this because I have difficulty separating its technique and message. But, make no mistake, The Birth of a Nation is an appalling story, even if it is not an appalling movie.
The story, for the uninitiated, involves two families during the civil war who find themselves pitted against one another during the great conflict. This portion, mainly involving battles and romance, roughly accounts for the first third of the picture. Most film historians are able to glance over the objectionable material in this section of the film as an extremely unfortunate product of the time (things such as the ever present blackface). It is where the section portion of the film, the last two thirds, are concerned where no one in their right mind would think, “Yeah, this is totally okay.” This portion of the film involves the reconstruction of the south after the war. It shows blacks seizing control over and oppressing the southern whites. One intertitle reads something to the effect of “Southern whites under the boots of northern blacks.” But then comes the cavalry, and by the cavalry I mean the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, in this film the KKK are presented as the heroes. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
With The Birth of a Nation, as I hinted at earlier, we have a puzzling piece of cinematic history. On the one hand its director, D.W. Griffith, almost single-handedly invented much of the cinematic language at use today (cross-cutting, fades, moving camera, on location filming), and yet he seems completely unaware of what exactly he was doing with this film. Whether by sheer ignorance or out of denial, Griffith was supposedly horrified when the public came out against the picture claiming it to be racist (I’ll share my thoughts on his supposed ignorance later). And remember folks, this is in 1915’s America. In those days racism was hardly an issue among the American public, and yet The Birth of a Nation incited so much flak that Griffith came back years later and made two films dealing with race issues: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919). This is not to say that the entirety of America came out against the film; hardly so, in fact, as The Birth of a Nation went on to become the highest grossing silent film of all time. So make no mistake, the majority of the American public, even if some were beginning to see the errors of racism, were still enthralled by the film and saw nothing wrong with it. But, no matter how Griffith attempted to rectify what he did with The Birth of a Nation, its cultural impact weighs in at such significance that it can hardly be understood. For instance, the KKK was all but extinct until this film, and in the years after its release the organization actually used this film as a recruitment tool. In fact there is a whole element of “revisionist history” which the film seems based upon, but has in turn continued to perpetuate, called the “Dunning School.” Make no mistake, The Birth of a Nation is a powerful and dangerous film.
This is also where we get into the most unfortunate aspects of the movie. The first portion of the film, the one dealing with the Civil War, is nothing but poorly executed melodrama which can be seen in almost any other film. The story is extremely muddled, the characters run together, and the film is overall just a bore. Unfortunately many of these issues change during the portion of the film purporting to document the reconstruction. The narrative becomes much tighter, the characters better defined, the camera pierces like a knife, and the action ramps up to a fever pitch. The second portion of the film, as degrading and disgusting as it is, is not only better made but is more engaging as a movie. Now this is no way is to say that the material is not objectionable or even palatable (it certainly is not), but is simply to say that these later portions of the film are likely why this was the highest grossing film of its day. If a viewer were ignorant of the truth regarding these events he might walk away from this film wishing to don one of the white hoods of the Klan, and go off fighting for their version of “freedom” himself. As I said, this is clearly a dangerous film.
So, as I began this article, with The Birth of a Nation the film historian and critic, finds himself in the difficult position of reviewing a film which is historically significant but is overshadowed by its irresponsible and ignorant narrative. Whether or not Griffith was actually oblivious to what he was doing, I cannot say for certain. But judging by some of his shot selection and handling of material, I find it difficult to believe that he was actually ignorant of the film’s appearance and stance. Near the end of the movie we find some of the character holed up in a cabin (as an intertitle put it) to protect “their Aryan birthright.” In another scene at the end, after the main conflict as subsided and the film is winding down to its conclusion, we find Griffith overlaying an image of white people in togas with a blonde-haired (surly blue-eyed), perfectly Aryan picture of Jesus. This dangerous use of the Christ within the overall context of the film presents what seems to be a prevalent worldview that Christ and his gospel is for the white man alone. Now, in no way am I trying to get theological (I am working on a theology degree, however), but I point out this detail for the purpose of showing the clear underlying message in the film that Griffith purposefully used. I am a huge believer in the director’s authorship of any given film, so when I see such details in a movie I cannot overlook them. Given the content and context of the film, I refuse to believe the stories of Griffith’s shock and horror at the films apparent racism. Griffith knew exactly what he was making and what its point and purpose were.
Yet there is still the unfortunate need to contextualize the movie within film history and note the technical advancements and innovations which Griffith made. Like I’ve said, it’s a touchy subject.
After the film ended my wife made a sort of knee-jerk reaction, one which I think is entirely justified given the content of the movie, and said that the film should have been burned long ago. We talked about it for a bit and then agreed: No, The Birth of a Nation should not be burned. In fact, it needs to be more readily seen and talked about. It needs to be contextualized and its revisionist history needs to be pointed out, addressed, and dealt with. But sweeping it under the rug via censorship is no way to deal with it. Actually, just destroying something because its offensive is no way to deal with anything. Should the film be handled and shared? Quite certainly so. But it must always be addressed within its context. Censorship is never the answer, however. Maybe in today’s world we need to talk about The Birth of a Nation even more so that we have in the decades past. Perhaps if we had talked about it more then today’s world would look radically different.
Because of the passage of time it is almost impossible, however, to look back on The Birth of a Nation and see its merit as an artistic development. There are other films from around the same time which did similar things in terms of technique, and yet The Birth of a Nation is the only one routinely cited as the grandfather of modern cinema. Most moviegoers in the past looked at the film and they saw stunning vistas, drama, romance, action, and the stories of their parents and grandparents on the screen. It is key to remember that this film is none-too-far removed from the Civil War. Griffith’s father was a soldier during that war, for instance. Yet we look at The Birth of a Nation and see blackface and racism, and can miss its artistic innovation. But can you separate the two? Can you separate a work’s inherent meaning and purpose from its aesthetics? I think it’s valuable that you try. In no way will that change the inherent evil of that work, and yet our looking at it differently can allow us to put it in its place as a piece of a larger puzzle.
The wonderful film critic Roger Ebert, never one to totally shy away from a difficult movie, wrote a wonderful piece on this film which you can read here. In the piece he admits his own hesitance of reviewing the film and trying to asses its artistic merits separately from its narrative downfalls. Within his piece you will find much about his views on film criticism, art, culture, and all sorts of interesting topics. Needless to say he handles the material in a way which I am incapable and unqualified. The man was simply a master, and that being the case, in drawing this post to a close, I would like to quote from Mr. Ebert’s article.
“To understand ‘The Birth of a Nation’ we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s ‘The 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 film, and even something about evil.”
– Roger Ebert, The Birth of a Nation Movie Review (2003)
Last night when my wife and I watched this film, it was the first time I had seen it to completion. I had started the film on at least two other occasions and had given up. I remember being so appalled by the blackface in the early portions of the film that I never even made it to the really bad stuff. Yet I remember my uncle, also a film enthusiast, telling me how important the movie was. Then, more recently, I saw that the film was required for my online class taught by Werner Herzog, and I decided to finally sit down and watch it. I say all of this to point out that Roger Ebert is correct: we must understand the difference between what we bring to a film and what the film brings to us. I’m not certain that I was yet ready for The Birth of a Nation. Perhaps one day I will watch it again and be more prepared for it. As it stands now I am glad to give it the label of an important film, but I cannot give it the label of a good film. This is a personal hang up, and perhaps when I’ve matured a bit in my cinema-going (and as a person) I’ll be able to revisit it and watch it with different eyes.
But what do you do? This is a film which any serious student of cinema needs to see. Averting your eyes does nothing except ignore the problem. I am glad to have watched it, if only to say that I have done so. The Birth of a Nation, good or bad, is a landmark film.