D. W Griffith is regarded as a prolific director with a filmography of notable masterpieces. The greatest of his oeuvre synonymous with his name is the epic – The Birth of a Nation. It is both an achievement and a blot on the Director’s career. This duality of praise and shame is echoed equally in the creation of the film, the content and even the reception.
To truly appreciate and to come to terms with the final creation, this film must be divided into the succinct categories of good and evil which it entails in equal measure.
The narrative is divided in half. The first portion follows two American families, the Northern Stonemasons and the Southern Camerons. Their friendship is tested as America enters into a bloody Civil War. After a brutal battle in which sons are lost on both sides, the North wins and the United Nations is born. The first section closes with a stunning recreation of President Lincoln’s assassination.
The first half of Griffith’s epic is incredible. The narrative sophistication is beyond compare of anything of the time. Audiences can clearly appreciate the nuances of the two families and their relationship. The action easily cuts from one hemisphere of America to the other through inventive use of early film grammar and the introduction of many new phrases. Griffith’s techniques include panoramic long shots, iris effects to highlight attention, still shots, night photography, panning shots and even flashbacks. All of this is punctuated with a specific score for each character and coloured tinting to maximise emotion of particular scenes in the vain of a novel’s pathetic fallacy. A spectacular leap forward in cinematic codes and conventions in a singular film which became indispensable narrative devices. An occurrence of this magnitude is hardly repeated in the history of movies.
It is hard now to imagine reactions of audiences accustomed only to theatre, the close-up or cross cutting of characters across multiple scenes or the huge battle scenes of the Civil War as a unique marvel. For this, Griffith must be applauded – his pacing and vision is never marred or distorted by fear of an audience unable to comprehend his ingenuity.
In many scenes, the camera is liberated from theatrical roots and enjoys the real world exterior, whilst the interior scenes are designed with an eye for reality. Theatrical staging of actors is still prevalent and the acting is melodramatic, but such is to be expected of theatrically trained actors. Sadly, even during the first act an uncomfortable sense of foreboding weighs down upon viewers. There is an abhorrent use of black face which was in abundance at the time in Minstrel acts, but a greater evil presence lurked on the periphery…
Act II unleashes the full force of Griffith’s derogatory vision.
The narrative continues with the reconstruction stage as Northern Carpetbaggers enjoying the spoils of the defeated South whilst the black population runs rampant and obtains legal control through nefarious tactics. Black citizens are presented as predatory, greedy and quite simply evil. A pest which must be stopped. The answer to the problem is found by the son of the Camerons and the Klu Klux Klan is born. The narrative evolves ever more hateful and ridiculous until the conclusion.
Techniques and devices so inspiring in the first half are present in the second, but each moment and iconic image is soured by what it captures. The Birth of a Nation begins with a message it never delivers, title cards refer to a wish to stop war and create peace. Evidently, peace extends to all brothers of the Aryan America. From this perspective, the film falls into the murky waters of propaganda.
The Birth of a Nation is a powerful and insightful tool to understand ubiquitously held prejudices of the time, but even the views stated in this piece caused a dividing of audiences. Griffith equally inspires and disturbs. The film is banned in many cinemas and was boycotted by the NAACP, yet it made more money of any film of the time and would not be beaten in profitability until the creation of Gone With the Wind. Reportedly, the outrage greatly hurt Griffith who genuinely was unable to grasp why it caused offence. Griffith would spend the remainder of his career searching for atonement for his creation.
It is worth noting that Griffith was a native Southerner. Born in Kentucky to a Confederate Civil War hero, Griffith spent his childhood absorbed in romanticised stories and swarms of praise for his father. It is easy to understand how such blatant racism could surreptitiously sneak into Griffith’s point of view. A subjective point of view of extreme sophistication in storytelling but underlined with ignorance. Still, there is no viable excuse for hatred.
It is important to remember that film is an opinion as much as any other art form or discourse. Within it, all views are subjective, for better or worse. The Birth of a Nation is nothing more in content than a vile opinion, the views widely acknowledged now as appalling. The Birth of a Nation is a terrible shame and many unsuccessfully attempted to dispose of the content and praise the form. To do so is to ignore the film, the terror of prejudice and the dark stain on the heart of America’s history. Instead, it is best to accept The Birth of a Nation as a piece of cinema history. The important word being history, the views belong to an ignorant past. What remains is the monumental power of the film grammar invented by Griffith and the Birth of modern cinema.
The Camerons have fled to a small cabin inhabited by a Unionist family. The North and South are once more joined in a common effort against the black citizens swarming outside. In a cross-cutting manner pre-emptive of montage, the Klu Klux Klan rides to the rescue in a bloody wave which washes away the blacks overrunning their beloved town, saving Lillian Gish and the trapped Camerons from annihilation. It is a moment which perfectly encapsulates the problematic nature of the film. It is a marvellous example of early film technique which inspired filmmakers for generations, but captures a terribly racist triumph.