One of the most interesting things about watching films on the AFI list is often attempting to understand why a particular movie is there. For instance, The Jazz Singer is not a particularly good movie, but it was the first “talkie,” so it’s ground-breaking in that sense. The original Frankenstein is really kind of terrible, but it’s the grandfather of monster movies, and therefore important. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, what we have is an incredibly controversial film that is frankly horrifying* to many modern-day viewers, but it really must be appreciated in terms of the scope and film-making involved.
The Birth of a Nation is a silent film, directed by D.W. Griffith, that follows two families, one from the North (the Stonemans) and one from the South (the Camerons), through the events of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It is divided into two sections, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as the turning point. In showing us the experiences of two families, Griffith does a good job of dealing with the realities of war: families are torn apart, friends are pitted against one another, everyone suffers. As an anti-war piece, the first half of the movie is actually quite effective. The second half is where things really get squicky.
In Griffith’s interpretation, the death of Abraham Lincoln is a catastrophe for the Southerners. Without “their champion,” they are suddenly at the mercy of carpetbaggers, corrupt politicians, and (most distressingly) the freed slaves. Events come to a head with the death of a young woman who kills herself rather than be molested by a black soldier. This is the catalyst for the creation of the KKK, which is depicted in a fully heroic light. The film culminates in a stand-off between the clansmen and the black inhabitants of the town of Piedmont, South Carolina, which is where the Camerons live and most of the action takes place.
I am loathe to dismiss this film, as a lot of people do, as simply racist, because I think it does a lot of things very well. Its agenda and the treatment of its subject matter are very clear, however, and that’s what makes it most disturbing. We noted early on that in all crowd scenes that include slaves and black people, about half of them are actually African-American, and the other half are in black-face. Any black characters that have actual roles, as far as I could tell, are also played in black-face. From a racial standpoint, obviously that’s uncomfortable. From a film-making standpoint, it just looks ridiculous. The difference is so stark. The biggest issue, though, is simply in how the lines are drawn. White people are the good guys, and black people are the bad guys. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie before and really thought about how that notion, of “good guys” and “bad guys,” is conveyed to the audience. It’s done with body language, with camera angles, and with the rise and fall of tension; particularly in this film, since it’s silent. And it’s done extremely well. There was a point at which I realized I was following along with that mindset, and it really bothered me. Still, I have to give credit to Griffith for utilizing the tools available to him in order to lead his audience where he wanted them to go. Highly effective.
The most impressive aspect of The Birth of a Nation is its sheer magnitude. This is an epic film. There are huge, wide shots of hundreds of people. There are battle scenes with explosions and smoke and fire. There are long sequences of hundreds of men on horseback streaming past the camera. Despite its subject matter, one really has to admire the undertaking that making the film must have been in 1915. I think, too, that the main thing to understand and appreciate about the movie is its place in history. Reconstruction ended in 1877, only 38 years prior to the making of this film. That’s practically yesterday in terms of social memory. The people making and watching the movie would have been, in many cases, personally affected by the war (Griffith’s father was a colonel in the Confederate Army). Additionally, when Birth of a Nation was released in early 1915, the first World War had started not even a year prior, which gives the anti-war sentiment a more poignant meaning.
Should you see The Birth of a Nation? I don’t know. I think it probably depends on how you tend to think about the more unpleasant aspects of our history. There are plenty of people who want to ban reminders of past behavior, or to change them, as though that can somehow change history. My personal belief is that we need to be reminded of those things because that is how we learn and hopefully use the knowledge of the past in order to better the future. The movie will certainly make you uncomfortable, but I think that in terms of history, both the history depicted and the history of film-making in America, it’s an important work. We need to know where we’ve been in order to know where we are, and where we’re going.
*This movie contains a lot of offensive material. It is my hope that this review will deal with the subject in the least problematic manner possible, but I sincerely apologize if anything here causes discomfort. There’s no header picture because I couldn’t find one that didn’t bother me.