Home OtherFilm Great Movies Project #2: Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)

Great Movies Project #2: Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)

written by rick March 8, 2015
Great Movies Project #2: Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)

Part of an ongoing effort to watch each of the films in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series. The introduction and full list can be found here.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

It’s hard to figure out how to approach The Birth of a Nation, released 100 years ago this month.

It’s white supremacist propaganda that also had a huge technical and aesthetic impact on later cinema. It features incredible wide shots, mixed with a number of other styles, depicting carefully orchestrated battlefields and dancehalls that still prove exciting today, and it is also downright jubilant about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan under Reconstruction. (During the KKK’s so-called “second era,” it was shown as an actual recruitment video). It is a touchstone for every movie that came after, and also, thematically, beneath contempt.

Watching any early film, there are several steps of remove. Stepping into a darkened theater for a screening, or loading things up on streaming services, downloaded files, Blu-Ray, and DVD, we watch images captured a century ago on film. The world depicted isn’t ours, the behaviors can seem odd (and fast), and the assumptions have changed about people’s roles. They are cultural artifacts, which were received by audiences once and enjoyed or rejected; they are cultural artifacts we can consider now, gauging how they play aesthetically and what resonance they still have, and why; and they are lenses through which to consider how both art and history function.

With epics like Cabiria, and now Birth of a Nation, there’s another remove. Like all epics, they are located in a time and place but look further back themselves – Cabiria to the Punic Wars, Birth of a Nation to the Civil War (or, as I’m certain Birth of a Nation would have it, the “War of Northern Aggression”).

And like all epics, they don’t magically appear in the cultural imagination. From The Iliad to The Aenied to The Inferno and beyond, epics share numerous characteristics, not least among them their association with empire, with foundational myths and the political and socially charged fantasies that animate the moment of their creation. Pastrone’s Cabiria took the opportunity of the 1911-1912 Libyan War victory to remember Rome’s triumph over Carthage in the 3rd century B.C. Griffith’s groundbreaking epic does something similar, but maps that fantasy onto dreams of the South rising at last, casting off its figurative chains (now that that the literal ones the South relied on were no more) and reasserting its wounded primacy. “The Empire of the South,” Hoover’s phrase, is instructive – Birth of a Nation is a requiem for a lost way of life (invariably depicted as bucolic and, if not perfect, certainly better than the through-the-looking-glass chaos of Reconstruction) and a fist-in-the-air protest against modernity, embodied in the form of lascivious Black bodies upsetting the social order. In a heavy irony, modernity, in the form of the camera lens, gives this deeply nasty vision its ability to be seen.

That D.W. Griffith’s film is a foundational text is beyond dispute: it announces as much in its title. Birth of a Nation played a huge role in introducing film vocabulary we now take for granted. Examples include differentiating the motivations of people in the foreground and background, cutting between a scene and another one elsewhere that it affects, and alternating between wide shots, mid shots, and close-ups in battle scenes (especially the climactic final one), managing to both convey a vast scope and focus intimately on the individual characters. If you have ever seen a movie, and especially a war movie or a western, you’ve seen something Griffith had a large hand in laying the groundwork for. There are also moments of great interpersonal pathos between characters, and Griffith coached nuanced performances from his central cast – which is to say, the white ones who aren’t in blackface. Everyone else is a caricature, or worse, an absence.

He also, incontrovertibly, created a 3-hour-long recruitment video for the Ku Klux Klan. Despite protests from the NAACP, Birth of a Nation was the first film ever to be screened inside the White House. The latter shouldn’t be too surprising, as a galling quote from Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President at the time, features prominently in the film.

It’s all well and good to take a look at its aesthetics but, more than most films, these contexts can’t be shrugged off as “extratextual” – the film’s white supremacy and fear are part of its DNA, just as they are of the country that birthed it.

As Alyssa Rosenberg notes, the aesthetics vs. racism division is a crude one, and arguably gets it wrong – to say that Griffith was a technical master but also a white supremacist is to imply a chasm between the two, when in many ways, his mastery of technique elevates the importance of his racism to the discussion. If Birth of a Nation were unwatchable garbage, technically, no one would talk about it 100 years later. Perversely, despite its punishing three and half hour running time and unmitigated bigotry, it’s eminently watchable. This is especially true in Part 1, which focuses on the war and its immediate aftermath before Part 2 gets down to the business of defending oppressed white society from being trampled under the heel of Black tyranny.

Kino Video’s restored version, which is the one I watched, opens with a prelude – later footage depicting Griffith in conversation with Walter Huston. As Huston oohs and aahs over the film, Griffith refuses to take full credit, attributing the positive critical and popular reception to the resonance of the story itself. And as if to remove any doubt about where he’s coming from (and how little he is prepared to cede to critics of his movie’s white supremacist narrative), he describes it as his father’s story, who fought for the South and lived under Reconstruction, and his mother’s, who herself sewed robes for the Klan. The KKK, he intones with a mixture of regret and defiance, “was needed at the time.” Oboy.

An introductory title card, under the header “A plea for the art of the motion picture”, reads: “We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” To his credit, the film does showcase the venality of opportunistic white politicians, and it is at pains to emphasize the common humanity of soldiers on both sides of the battles. To his deep, lasting discredit, not a touch of this empathy or nuance is extended to anyone but whites, and those depictions of political venality are reserved solely for the abolitionists, carpetbaggers, and drunken, endlessly ridiculous caricatures of newly freed blacks, who simply don’t know how to behave in civilized society, much less govern a state.

We open on the Cameron estate in Piedmont, South Carolina, meeting each of the members of the family as they visit. The elder Cameron, patriarch, sits on a porch, lazily petting two dogs and a cat (a quiet, naturalistic touch far removed from the epic staginess of Cabiria). The family tours the grounds, from the tree-lined thoroughfare to the bucolic cotton fields filled with happy slaves to the slave quarters themselves, whose denizens are only too enthusiastic to dance and cavort like live-action cartoons for the pleased whites. It’s profoundly unpleasant, but the overall look and feel is bright, orderly, sun-lit … just lovely all around, if you’re a Cameron.

This is the Old South, and it’s on its way out. Not but moments later, we are in Washington, where Lincoln has signed an executive order issuing a call for volunteers. I was surprised by how fast the war arrived in the film – only 30 minutes in and it’s begun. Interestingly, the scene depicting the signing of the executive order is, a title card tells us, based on a photographic facsimile, which Griffith even cites specifically (this technique occurs twice more over the course of the film). The shot opens with its participants carefully arranged, clearly reproducing an external image, before awkwardly kicking into gear and motion. Griffith seems to announce that his film is not a mere telling but History itself – you can check the book to verify, if you like; the photo is there, and the source helpfully provided.

It also announces a marked difference in approach: whereas Cabiria sought to distinguish film from theater and opera through grand stagings and dramatic depictions of light and dark, Griffith’s ambition seems for film to subsume other forms, including photography. Film will do all the things Pastore aimed for but more, liberally stealing from those traditions and rerouting them for its own uses. Film will be the new all-encompassing performative and representative medium for the 20th century.

Time flies at this point. After the Battle of Bull Run, celebratory bonfires rage in the streets (it looks like a riot to me, but I’ve never been to a celebratory urban bonfire that wasn’t a riot) while a ball commences indoors among the well-to-do. The ball is a wonderfully shot sequence, as the couples weave in and out gracefully, their expressions distinct and identifiable. It’s no small thing to choreograph dozens of dancing couples in finery without things being reduced to visual mush – here, Griffith makes it look easy. What’s more, as the announcement that the Confederate soldiers in their ranks are needed, there is simultaneous excitement, pride, sorrow, and worry reflected on different faces in different interactions, in foreground and back. We can see them all at once, and it’s never confusing. There’s a feeling of life in this scene, and intimacy, of different people with different motivations reacting in individual ways in a crowd. It’s a neat trick, and testifies to Griffith’s ability to coach his cast, as well as shoot them.

After the soldiers march heroically off to cheers (including those of their slaves), Piedmont is raided by a guerilla regimen of Northern blacks, under the lead of a “scallywag” white officer. They burn buildings and kill many as they ransack the town. Again, the visual language is crisp and precise – there’s little confusion over who is who or what is happening, and it is, somewhat guiltily, pretty exciting. For the first, but not the last time, I was reminded of the quote attributed to Truffaut, that an anti-war depiction of battle is impossible, since action argues for itself. Whether the viewer is horrified by the destruction (as Griffith no doubt intended) or feels that it’s a justified as part of the battle against slavery (a more likely modern reaction), the scene is simply exciting, full stop.

Two of the Cameron daughters hide in a crawlspace as the building catches flames, and it is very difficult indeed not to align ourselves with these cornered protagonists, the very picture of innocent and pure Southern young womanhood. The Confederates rush back to the town’s rescue, a street fight ensues, and we close on the image of a Northern and a Southern fighter dead in each other’s arms. It’s perniciously sentimental, but it’s hard to ignore what Griffith pulls off here.

From here on out, Atlanta is burned to the ground by Sherman’s forces and a title card announces “The last days of the Confederacy.” A final monster battle follows between a well-supplied Union regimen and a Southern battalion cut off from their food supply train. All the stops are pulled: there’s an artillery duel to break the Union lines, then a glorious wide shot of opposing entrenchments trading fire, smoke everywhere from the guns, field artillery riding through the frame, mortar explosions, dead bodies and writhing wounded ones as far as the eye can see, a final, desperate moment of hand-to-hand combat and bayonet blades. It’s masterfully done. And then, contrary to earlier notions that audiences wouldn’t understand anything more complicated than a mid-shot, Griffith twice cuts between the battle and the Cameron family praying at home, adding another element to the tension and pacing while widening the already enormous scope of the battle to include the worried family far from the front.

In a the film’s most affecting moment, a simple, mournful title card reads, “War’s peace”, as the camera surveys a grotesque tableau of mangled bodies, slumped corpses, and hollow eyes. This is the high point of the movie. Unfortunately, there’s 2 more hours.

Ben Cameron survives the battle, and wins the admiration of Union soldiers by sheltering one of their wounded own during the fight (testifying to his true Southern decency). He’s hospitalized with a card relaying his heroism and asking that he be treated well by the North. By chance, the hospital he lands in is where Elsie Stoneman, daughter of a prominent abolitionist and cousin to his friend, serves as a nurse. Ben has loved Elsie ever since he saw her photograph, which he, despite never having met her, kind of creepily carried with him throughout the travails of the war (I guess this testifies to the romantic bent of Southern masculinity, although it comes across more stalker-y than anything … maybe Griffith was just looking forward to future romantic comedies).

Unfortunately for Ben, the radical abolitionists (those bastards) have been agitating for the hanging of all Southern officers. Somehow, Elsie and the matriarch of the Cameron clan get an audience with Lincoln himself to plead their case and, after some initial reluctance, he grants Ben clemency. Rosenberg is right to cite this scene as another of the most affecting, on a small scale: the mother reacts to the news in several stages, reaching out to hug the President, refraining and pulling back, looking ready to collapse. It’s a believable and emotional moment.

With another facsimile, Robert E. Lee (gracious but pained) surrenders to Grant (cigar-chomping and arrogant), and the war is over. The South is humbled. Ben returns to Piedmont to find a ruined town, a family subsisting on meager fare, and a younger sister who has glued cotton to her plain dress for the occasion, in a sad attempt at past glory.

And then Lincoln is killed, opening a path to the ascendancy of the radical Northerners, who want not only to punish the South but to kill it once and for all.

Part 2 is where the film tips into pure racist propaganda. (One imagines that, for KKK recruitment purposes, they didn’t even show Part 1.) For all its rosy depictions of the pre-war South, Part 1 has a narrative drive and (a limited number of) nuanced characterizations that’s completely missing from the film’s back half. We’ve left behind any attempt at artistry and, in its account of the rise of the KKK, have moved into cold, racist political calculation. It’s horrific to behold.

Griffith’s title card, sounding suspiciously like a man addressing a future jury, argues that “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” Well, that’s nice, anyway.

In another prelude, Huston and Griffith return to discuss the film. Griffith trots out this whopper from Woodrow Wilson (our 28th President, ladies and gentlemen), which no doubt sped up its historic screening in Wilson’s White House:

Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much the enemies of one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile and use the negroes. The white men were aroused by a mere instinct of self-preservation — until at last there sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.

Griffith adds, “It’s rather true, isn’t it?”

By the film’s telling, under Reconstruction the Northerners came en masse to the South, displacing long-standing parliamentarians, changing voter registration rules to exclude whites (ahem), and bribing ignorant black voters. The result? A statehouse composed of 101 blacks “against” (the film’s word) 23 whites. These idiotic legislators pass bottles around, take off their shoes and put their feet up on their desks, and, worst of all, legalize interracial relationships. (Title card: “Later the grim reaping begins.”) Black juries absolve obvious black criminals of guilt. Mobs beat up fellow blacks who didn’t vote for the right candidate.

All is lost, all is lost for (actual title card) “the oppressed white minority.”

The plot focuses on Silas Lynch, a “mulatto” who attains the position of Lt. Governor mainly as the tool of radical Northerner Austin Stoneman (Elsie’s father, if you’re keeping score). He’s a leering, lecherous figure, power-mad in his new freedom and jubilant at the opportunity to take the whites down a notch.

Ben Cameron has had enough of this world turned upside down, but it’s not until he despondently sits on a hill to think on how crazy the world has become that he gets his inspiration. Several black children are playing nearby; two cover themselves in a sheet, then jump up and scare the others. Eureka! The KKK is born.

That the most violent and notorious hate group the U.S. has ever produced was the brainchild of a man observing black children at play might be the film’s most nauseating suggestion, but the film has no time for such thoughts. The KKK begins fighting back against the over-reach and scandalously degenerate behavior of the free blacks, first through intimidation and then murder. Lynch retaliates and a local war begins.

By the time the youngest Cameron daughter is chased by Gus, a free black who wants a white woman as his wife, through the woods, up the hilltop, and to her death, things have gotten almost unwatchably reprehensible. The implication that slavery was the only thing that kept the black male libido in check, and that white Southern women would be better served by flinging themselves from hilltops to the rocks below than allow their modesty to be sullied in such a fashion, is par for the course at this point. On an aesthetic note, their chase is shot like a proto-horror film (Texas Chainsaw springs immediately to mind, along with Halloween). This is not to the film’s credit.

The KKK track Gus down in a gin joint where he’s cowardly hiding, put him on trial before a truly horrific assembly of hooded Klan members, kill him, and leave him on the statehouse steps, with a note pinned to his chest depicting their logo and a skull and crossbones. I think we’re supposed to cheer for this retribution.

The film winds down with Lynch “proposing” to Elsie (the proposal escalates immediately to threats of violence), her refusal, and her rescue by the Klan. Lynch can no longer be controlled by Stoneman, who himself, hypocrite that he is, can’t stomach the notion of a non-white marrying his daughter, however much he may support miscegenation as a politically-motivated wedge issue. There is a call for all the neighboring Klans to ride together and save Elsie’s imperiled white womanhood, and both former Union and Reb soldiers, recognizing their joint investment in “defence of their Aryan brotherhood,” ride as one to stop the forced marriage. This new unity leads to the heroic re-disenfranchisement of blacks, who also have to turn in all their guns, and order is restored. We close with expression of love between two whites and a crazy last image of the wastefulness of the death in the war, and a plea to find brotherhood in Christ.

That’s actually what happens in this movie. This is incredibly long, but after watching 3.5 hours of this business, I feel like I’ve earned the right to recount it. And, at 3.5 hours, I’ve also left out quite a bit.

The lingering question remains: why watch it, though? It’s reprehensible. We have Wikipedia and IMDB, so we know it’s racist. Yes, Griffith made technological innovations and huge impacts on the visual language of cinema, but … why watch it?

I don’t think there’s anything inherently virtuous in watching it. It’s not like a gauntlet one has to run through in order to have an opinion on its content, context, or aesthetic. If others would prefer to ignore it, or at least not engage with it, I would be the last person to say that’s incorrect.

I watched it because of this project, and also because I’d long been curious exactly how fucked up it was. Lesson learned: very fucked up. And I’d also long been curious to know why it’s so often cited as a “great film,” despite its loathsome narrative. Lesson also learned: the staging of the battle and ballroom scenes in Part 1, the subtle reaction shots between individuals, the contrast between foreground and background characters, the stunts (I didn’t get into that – the guy jumping out a window onto a horse was neat), and the cutting between different locations that opens up the narrative beyond just the two (or 200) people on screen at any given time. It continues to bewilder me that people thought audiences wouldn’t understand, say, a cut between a battlefield and a family hundreds of miles away, praying about the battle. But it was Griffith, among others, who made clear that we would understand, and that is a huge contribution to visual storytelling.

Also, as a white guy in America, I wanted to engage with it because of where we are as a society now. This film screened in the White House 100 years before Mike Brown was executed on a street in Ferguson, before Tamir Rice was gunned down in a Cleveland playground, before Oscar Grant was shot in the back on the platform of the Fruitvale BART. Before we locked up more black folks in jails and prisons, or monitored them under state control, than anywhere in history. Many, many more. White anxieties about black bodies, especially black male bodies, are as prevalent as ever, though no one would think to make Birth of a Nation today. There’s an appalling honesty to Griffith’s production that in some ways gives the lie to liberal myths of progress. It’s not “better” to be openly racist, but it’s sure a lot more revealing than the bromides about colorblind societies or expanded opportunities of access or reducing everything to interpersonal stories divorced from larger structures (not to mention the White Savior myths that do-gooders and the well-intentioned can’t seem to stop themselves from promulgating). Looking back at Birth of a Nation shouldn’t be an opportunity to marvel at how prevalent white supremacy once was; it should be a bracing reminder at how much it persists and underwrites our daily lives.

And some more than others. After the credits rolled, I sat thinking on it for a little while – about the film, about representation or lack thereof, about white supremacy and racism and structures of power and stories, about the violent policing of non-white bodies and the myths we still tell to justify the unjustifiable.

But I got exhausted, and depressed. So I took my dogs for a walk. I didn’t feel like thinking or writing any more about white supremacy. Because, as a white person in America, that’s a thing I can do.

Ebert’s review is here. Favorite quote: “To understand “The Birth of a Nation” we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. “The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

Next up: Broken Blossoms

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