The Birth of a Nation (1915)


*. It wasn’t the birth of film, but it was close. Earlier filmmakers tended to be engineers, inventors, or photographers. D. W. Griffith was a motion picture pioneer. With Birth of a Nation you are finally watching something that a modern audience would recognize as a movie, one laid down in a familiar visual grammar.
*. It’s hard to overstate Griffith’s place in film history. James Agee wrote that “He [Griffith] achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” As Roger Ebert puts it, these words “are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic.”
*. Don’t believe Agee? In his standard textbook A History of Narrative Film, David A. Cook begins his chapter on Griffith with this stunning sentence: “The achievement of David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948) is unprecedented in the history of Western art, much less Western film.” Wow.
*. I could go on quoting more like this, but the point is clear. And what’s more, it was a point Griffith himself was both aware of and promoted. When he left Biograph in 1913 he even took out an advertisement declaring himself to be the founder of “the modern technique of the art.”


*. If Griffith was the first director (or at least the first auteur), and the father of narrative film, The Birth of a Nation was something else: the birth of cinema. It’s an important film in the history of the art, but even more so in the history of the industry. Dave Kehr’s summary: “The Birth of a Nation put an end to a certain kind of popular theater and elevated in its place a medium that had, until then, been largely a novelty attraction headed from vaudeville theaters to sideshows. An industry grounded in one- and two-reelers was transformed within a couple of years into an industry of feature films; storefront nickelodeons grew into lavish movie palaces, and movies became the preferred entertainment to the emerging American middle class — all because of Griffith’s film.”
*. Enough of that. This movie was a landmark achievement, everyone agrees. What else is there to say?


*. Is it racist? Hell yeah. You have to acknowledge this, but I think it’s unnecessary to say much more than point out the obvious. I mean, you don’t have to read between the lines here to find a racist subtext. It’s a movie that’s unabashedly, in-your-face, over-the-top racist.
*. Contemporary audiences understood this perfectly well, and went to see it regardless. Griffith himself professed surprise at the charges of racism, but he was a child of the South (his father had been a Confederate officer) and so was born to it.
*. Still, he did make gestures toward covering his ass. As the title card at the beginning of the second part reads: “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” Ho-ho. That has to be one of the most dishonest disclaimers ever.


*. When the blacks aren’t just ignorant layabouts eating watermelon and fried chicken while swigging moonshine, or sex-crazed rapists lecherously ogling white women, then they’re scheming, treacherous manipulators. There are many shades of black here, and all of them evil but for the handful of “faithful souls” who stand by their masters.
*. Having white actors play blacks by putting burnt cork on their faces may be offensive to modern tastes, but it’s something that was routine at the time. My problem with it is that it looks ridiculous.
*. Here Roger Ebert makes an interesting point: “His [Griffith’s] blackface actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black actors could not have been used in such sexually charged scenes, even if Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them. Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.”
*. Expanding on this a bit, I find one of the most disturbing shots, perhaps the most disturbing shot, in the entire film to be the one in South Carolina’s State House of Representatives where the black actors (and some of them are black actors) silently stare up at the pair of white women who are visiting in the gallery just as it is being announced that interracial marriages have become legal. In a moment the uppity cotton-pickers have turned from being an assembly of clowns to a pack of threatening predators.


*. And it isn’t just the black men presented this way. The mulatto servant (Lydia Brown) is sexed up too, raping herself in order to condemn Senator Sumner and seduce Austin Stoneman, and seeming to go into orgasms at hearing of the plans for Reconstruction.
*. Obviously miscegenation was an obsession for Griffith, but we make great art out of our obsessions. The whole sequence where Gus chases Flora through the woods and eventually off a cliff is brilliant in its pacing and use of effective cross-cutting between three different characters in pursuit of one another.


*. It’s offensive, sure, but that’s the double-edged nature of this film’s achievement. I take exception to Cook’s finding a paradox between Griffith’s “staggering cinematic genius” and “intellectual shallowness.” That shallowness was every bit as important, and indeed as necessary to his success as his technical achievement. Most blockbusters are intellectually shallow. This is great art, but even more than that, it’s great trash.


*. It’s humbug. Pretty much all humbug. As noted above, it says it’s not racist but it is. It also purports to show the full tragedy and horror of war (“war claims its bitter, useless, sacrifice“!), but it celebrates violence and militarism. Poor Flora finds “the opal gates of death” sweeter than dishonour. But in fairness, it was 1915. It was only the First World War and Modernism that finally demolished this pious claptrap. Looking back on the Civil War, Americans could still think of war as heroic.



*. Griffith also had an exquisite sense of pacing. It’s often been noted how effortlessly he moves from the domestic to the historical, something which has always been the nature of epic. Also very good is his ability to change gears from frantic action to static tableaux and “historical facsimiles.” Indeed you never feel the adjustment being made.
*. David Thomson: “the film now seems slow, methodical, and merciless, like Scott dragging sledges across the South Polar plateau.” Not at all (I think Thomson just wanted to work that image in there somehow). For such a long, baggy narrative it’s surprisingly light on its feet. I mean, it is just over three hours long and doesn’t move at the pace a contemporary film by Scorsese moves at, but it’s still quite compelling. Yes, it mines melodramatic stage conventions shamelessly, but they became conventions because they worked. This movie has narrative wheels.
*. Put another way, I’d rather watch three hours of this movie than an hour of Intolerance any day. You can say all you want about how Intolerance is a better movie, but it’s not as effective an entertainment.


*. The real innovation that would make feature films possible was Griffith’s sure, and mainly intuitive, sense of narrative. You don’t watch a three-hour film that isn’t going anywhere.
*. I say intuitive because Griffith apparently didn’t use a shooting script but rather kept the story in his head. This meant the story had to be both very simple and built mainly around images.
*. I don’t find Lilian Gish all that attractive, but the way she works that bedpost is certainly erotic.


*. I can’t help thinking of the house in Night of the Living Dead being surrounded by zombies when I see the cabin out in the middle of the field at the end of this picture. Only the undead here are crazed blacks, breaking down the doors and trying to come in through the windows while North and South are finally united “in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
*. So it’s a landmark. It’s racist. It’s humbug. It’s a great film. It’s a travesty of history and morally disgusting, but those are charges that can be levelled against a lot of popular entertainment, even in our own time. That it endures is testament both to Griffith’s achievement and something bad, or perhaps just weak and “intellectually shallow” in all of us.


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