100 years later, D.W. Griffith’s controversial masterpiece “The Birth of a Nation” still finds a way to harm people.
Last week a mad man driven by hate and prejudice murdered nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. This has led to a surge of protest against the flag of the former Confederate States of America that flies on the grounds of the capitol in Columbia.
Today, the modern viewer cannot watch “Birth of a Nation” without feeling ill. From the first scene of a slave auction to the notorious battle charge of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation” is fueled by ignorance.
But it must be remembered who made this film, D.W. Griffith was born in Kentucky only 10 years after the American Civil War. He was raised in a world that viewed the conflict as pure Northern aggression, a war on a way of life. By the time the film was released in 1915, baseball was still segregated. Jim Crow reigned supreme in the South while the belief that Anglo-Saxon blood was superior was the norm. With these in mind, it leaves enough room to discuss the craft of the film.
In 1915, “Birth of a Nation” was technologically ahead of its time. The critic James Agee wrote concerning Griffith:
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…
In 1915, film was still a poor man’s art form. It had not yet gained the appreciation it has today. Little shorts of men sneezing and traveling to the moon were still the only films being made at the time. Then along came “Birth of a Nation;” a three-hour long epic about the fall of and rise of a people.
It made use of the cut between actions, a device that had not been put to wide use until after. Watch as black soldiers pillage a town while at the same time, the Klan rode on in their white robes and hats to save the day. It created a kind of tension in the scene until the Klansmen finally arrived and saved the day.
It is an understatement to say that the South was ravaged by the Civil War. An entire economy and society that was built on the labor of slaves had to be rebuilt along with the cities that were burned to the ground. It just made some sort of sense that the Klan was a saving grace… almost a hold on an old way of life.
Now comes a question that all film students have asked after viewing it: “Was Griffith racist?” The answer from all professors is always, “Yes, but…” To put it lightly, Griffith was a racist in the modern sense, but when compared to the more radical views of the time, he was mild. It was a shame that he did not understand the hate that came from his movie. In atonement, Griffith made the inferior “Intolerance” which spanned different eras and showed different kinds of intolerance.
Griffith uses the same techniques in “Intolerance” that he used in “Birth of a Nation.” People have put “Intolerance” on lists that included great movies. But I find it troubling that society cannot consider films that reflect evil to be art. What does that say about us as a whole when that is the truth?
Now for a bit of reflection: “Birth of a Nation” was the first film to be viewed in the White House by President Wilson. 100 years after its release, the first black President watched Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” in the same building.