DIRECTOR: David Wark (D.W.)Griffiths
Beginning life as an adaption of Thomas Dixon Jr.’s Novel, “The Clansman”, and originally planned as colour movie to shot in Kinemacolor, controversial from the start, The Birth Of A Nation has been the subject of many an essay and news article; so there is little to say other than to share my views on this century old epic.
Considered to be groundbreaking for so many technical reasons, namely for being America’s first 8 reel epic, the film also opens up cinema to so many “new” tropes, whether by coining them or simply using them to great effect.
At a running time of over three hours, it is hard to imagine now, just how huge this this was at the time, both in length as well as impact. Possibly the first movie to feature and intermission due to its running time, but it was the social commentary which has stood the test of time, through not in a good way, as this film’s second act becomes such an effective confederate propaganda tool, that KKK are still reportedly using it to recruit members today!
The film is split into two parts, with the first introducing and following two families, one southern and one northern as the Civil war breaks out and plays out to a Yankee victory four years later. Part One concludes with a recreation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed here as “The South’s best friend”.
But all this was added during the production which began with the second part, the adaptation of Dixon Jr’s’s book, “The Clansman”. And this is where the fils real problems begin. The Ku Klux Klan are portrayed and savors of the South against an south conquered by ex-black slaves spurred on by abolitionists and carpetbaggers from the north.
Though the film makes statments throughout, trying to soften the racist tones, even back in 1915, by making out that the black take over of the south was being encouraged by northerners intent of punishing the Confederate states for their uprising in 1861, though the Confederate attack on fort Sumter, generally considered to be the first shots of the war were omitted here; these words feel hollow as white actors are blacked up to play lead roles, though this was common at the time, whilst actual black actors are generally portrayed as ravenous, uneducated thugs, who’s main interests would involves raping white women!
But before we get bogged down with politics and those of 1915 to boot, which we must remember were very different, this film was considered very racist even then, the real question for 2017 is how well was this film made? The answer: For the time, very well indeed.
The long winded plot plays out to a specific and satisfying conclusion, and even though that conclusion is the KKK riding to the rescue of a town which has been ransacked by black army, it is where the plot has been building towards all along. In fact, I was reluctantly backing the KKK, something whcih I would never do in real life!
The KKK and the freed black slaves were real, but their portrayal here was simply that of heroes and villains, Allies v Germans in WW2. Taken as cartoonist fantasy and not as historical fact, then you can allow yourself to get caught up in Griffiths popcorn epic. That said, some scene left my jaw on the floor. I have never seen anything like what appears in this film.
That is how effective a propaganda piece this is. And this is maybe where this film now, needs to be approached. Films are made with a current perspective layered into the narrative, so if this was made today, the KKK would never be portrayed like this because the civil rights moment has moved on in leaps and bounds in the 100 years silence this was released. NAACP for for example was only 6 years old at the time, having been formed in 1909.
And take in to account that The Birth Of A Nation only takes place 50 years after the events that it portrays whilst we are watching a film which itself is twice as old! This means that we have to not only judge the events of 150 years ago, but look at them through a prism of public opinion of 100 years ago. In short, the intended audience of this film are now long dead. Everything we are looking at here is history and whether you take it as entertainment or art, it is easier to appreciate it as such, as taking the politics too seriously is just daft.
The KKK would rise to power again in early 1920’s, some say off the back of this film but they fell from grace just a quickly and now exist as terrorist organisation, hiding in the shadows and behind their bed-sheets, but watching this was almost comical in how racist it really was. I do not think that I’ve ever seen anything this bad before, so overt in its views and if Griffiths is to be believed when saying that he is not racist, then its naivety.
So as a movie, how does it stand up. Very well actually. Paced like the epics which would follow yet culminating in a finale not dissimilar to that of a modern action movie, this is incredibly influential work. All the pieces are in place for the American epic of the future, though being an early and ground breaking piece of cinema, many new tropes are created around the exiting ones of the fledgling art of cinema.
Overall, this is a work of film history in the making, opening American cinema up as well as creating one its greatest controversies, one which still stands today, but should we still watch this?
Should we take it seriously?
It is a work of fiction based of some facts and those facts are best researched separately. Enjoy this as history unto itself, not as a historical document about the Civil War and reconstruction there after. It is safer that way…