Everyone who cares about film must eventually come to The Birth of a Nation. Artistically, technically, and culturally, the importance of D. W. Griffith’s celebrated, villified, deeply troubling Civil War masterpiece cannot be overstated. It is "the first great narrative film," according to Roger Ebert, and the first true cinematic epic; it was the longest American feature film to date, and its unprecedented impact helped usher in the dominance of the feature film and the end of the age of one-reel shorts.
Yet the film’s second half, with its outrageously racist stereotypes and view of the post-war reconstruction, incited protest even in its own day, and has only become more disturbing over time. Had Griffith concluded the film at the close of Part I with the stunning depiction of Lincoln’s assassination, controversy over the film would be a mere footnote. But there’s no ignoring the film’s final act, which, following the source novel and play The Clansmen by white supremacist Thomas F. Dixon Jr., celebrates the founding of the original Ku Klux Klan, climaxing with the Klan heroically subjugating out-of-control black rioters and restoring white control.
Griffith considered himself a liberal and a tolerant man, and while he was a racist, it was a racism of the paternalistic rather than the hate-filled sort (he once said he could no more be against blacks than against children, and expressly compared his affection for blacks to love for children). There are offensive depictions of cartoonish black (and mulatto) villains in The Birth of a Nation, but the real villains are the white Northern carpetbaggers, unprincipled opportunists out to exploit the post-war South, who are depicted as inciting the blacks to unruly behavior.
As patently objectionable as the film’s final act is, it is important to understand that at the time The Birth of a Nation was released, the Ku Klux Klan we know today, i.e., a 20th-century yokel hate group, didn’t yet exist, and the original Klan celebrated in the film, a Reconstruction-era upper-class white-supremacist secret society, was a separate group that had been defunct for decades. In fact, to his immortal ignominy, Griffith himself was unintentionally responsible for inspiring the second Klan with this very film, though the new Klan was far more hateful than the original (so much so that even Dixon, the author of The Clansmen, disavowed the new organization).
In 1915 it was still possible for a Southerner like Griffith to regard the original Klan as a noble and heroic brotherhood rising up to defend the South, a cross of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, King Arthur’s knights, and Zorro’s fighting legion. If only The Birth of a Nation depicted the Klan behaving (however unhistorically) like heroes, it might be possible to consider the story as a story without reference to real-world racism.
Yet the film ultimately convicts itself. Not only does Griffith depict his Klansmen committing outrages against blacks, he clearly regards these crimes as justified, and means the audience to feel likewise. Examples include the mock trial and lynching of a black man whose menacing of a white woman led to her death, and the reversing of election fraud attributed earlier in the film to black militia seen blocking leading white citizens from approaching the polls, with resubjugated blacks now barred from the ballow boxes by Klan guardsmen.
What makes The Birth of a Nation must viewing for cinephiles in spite of the highly problematic subject matter of its second half is its pioneering technical brilliance. Like Citizen Kane, The Birth of a Nation is a magisterial synthesis of the lessons and technical advances of an entire era of film — the great difference being that Welles merely adroitly mastered and integrated lessons worked out by others, while Griffith was largely single-handedly responsible for advancing the art of film to the point at which a film like this was now possible.
In directing over 400 one-reel shorts for the Biograph company, Griffith pioneered such sophisticated cinematic techniques as cross-cutting between simultaneous events, fluid camera movements tracking action or panning across wide vistas, and expert use of closeups and panoramic long shots (many early films used medium-length shots for every scene). In The Birth of a Nation, all his prowess pays off at once in a towering achievement that may be denounced but will never be ignored.
Stung by the criticism and conroversy, D. W. Griffith responded with an even more ambitious, deeply moralistic follow-up film, Intolerance. Critics today differ which of the two films is Griffith’s masterpiece — but it was unquestionably The Birth of a Nation that changed the world.
Intolerance is a grandiose composite epic, interweaving four separate morality plays from different eras and settings, from 20th-century America (the "Modern Story") to Old Testament times (the "Babylonian Story"). Rounding out the four are a brief survey of the life and death of Christ (the "Galilean Story" [sic; most of it is set in Judea, not Galilee]) and events from the 16th-century persecution and massacre of Huguenot Protestants under the Medicis, including the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (the "French Story").
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.