Like it or not, all students of film history must sooner or later grapple with that big ugly behemoth of a movie, The Birth of a Nation. I was tempted to skip it on our odyssey through the films of the 20th Century, until I realized that there really wasn’t much else worth writing about from 1915. And Griffith is so essential to film history that there are unavoidably more Griffith films in our 100-year saga, several times over the nearest director with several entries, which will almost certainly be Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford; and if we are going to screen so many Griffith films, how can we not screen this one, which was not only the pinnacle of his career, but a turning point. Much of what came later in the Griffith oeuvre was an answer to, or an apology for, The Birth of a Nation.
To put the problem quite simply, The Birth of a Nation is far and away the most racist film ever to achieve widespread popularity in America. In hindsight, the film is “wrong” on so many levels, that one wonders how it could be so essential to our filmic heritage. It stands at a turning point in film history. It is the first truly important feature film in America (running over 3 hours), at a time when most films were still short features. It is the first true blockbuster film. (It was still, up until a few years ago, among the top 10 money-making movies of all time in inflation-adjusted dollars.) People might be tempted today to think of it as a relic of a less tolerant previous era. But that point of view overlooks that fact that this film was maligned by up to half the people who saw it, even in its own day; and the vitriol heaped upon it only worsened in the 1920’s as it was re-released. The NAACP tried unsuccessfully to have it banned. It was met with numerous lawsuits as it opened around the country, many of which succeeded in having the more objectionable scenes cut, but none of which halted the juggernaut that this film became as it stormed the nation.
There is much that is great about The Birth of a Nation. It is a beautiful film for its era. It has the intimate moments interlaced with epic scenes that became the province of later epic film-makers, such as David Lean. It almost succeeds in being a history lesson during Part I (prior to the Intermission), although a bit skewed toward the South’s point of view. The film is also a beautiful testament to the beauty and coquettishness, and acting range, of Lillian Gish, in one of her most memorable performances. Griffith’s camera lingers over her, enshrining his love for her (probably never consummated) on film.
Then, all hell breaks loose in Part II as Griffith goes full bore with the oppressed Southerner’s view of the horrors of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. It is Part II that makes the film so radical. But in its day, there was a substantial faction who believed that Griffith’s portrayal of the Reconstruction was absolutely authentic. No less a person than President Woodrow Wilson (himself a died-in-the-wool racist) weighed in by making it the first movie (allegedly) to be screened in the White House and proclaiming (also allegedly), the following, in his famous 2-line review: “It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Some commentators, sympathetic to the film’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan’s rescuing the South from the horrors of Reconstruction, actually urged people to take their children, in order to teach them a history lesson. When I learned that tidbit of fact, I could not help but remember Spike Lee urging children to skip school to see the premiere of his own historical film, Malcolm X. It seems that, if you have a warped version of history to tell that reinforces your own point of view, it is a good thing to get the children well indoctrinated, so that your interpretation of history doesn’t die with you.
It is not immediately obvious why D. W. Griffith was so obsessed to make a movie based on Thomas Dixon’s controversial novel and play, “The Clansman.” Perhaps it was just that he wanted to tell the story that his own father gave him, of the once grand antebellum South swept away in the great Lost Cause. Griffith’s own family farm had burned down shortly after the end of the War, and it was never restored to its former pretensions of grandeur. Griffith himself came along only later, being born in 1875. By all accounts, he became transformed by the prospect of making this movie, and he was a man bent on a mission until the film was in the can. It seems like Griffith never once, while he was making the movie, thought that The Birth of a Nation was anything but real history, and he became very defensive of it when he found out that a lot of people didn’t think so. He spent the rest of his life defending it, adding disclaimers to the title cards, making other films to answer it (such as Intolerance) or to (partially) apologize for it (such as Broken Blossoms.)
Which leaves us with the problem of how to interpret the film in 2018. Briefly, the movie tells the story of two families, the Northern Stonemans, led by a radical abolitionist congressman, and the Southern Camerons, who own a plantation and a bunch of slaves (and have their lives overturned by the changes that occurred in the wake of the Civil War.) Without giving away the convolutions of the plot (including double love stories), suffice it to say that the message of the film, as it is revealed in Part II after the Intermission, is that the South went to the dogs during Reconstruction, and it took the Ku Klux Klan to bring things back into balance, put the negroes back in their place, and restore the white Southerners to their former positions of power and authority.
Some critics have attempted to overlook all the racist elements and glorification of the Klan, and to give Griffith a pass because he made a very important American movie that is worthy of study in film schools. Other critics have stated that Griffith was merely reflecting a widespread point of view of his time, and he wasn’t so much a racist himself as a chronicler of that point of view. Neither critical approach seems very satisfactory today.
From the lofty, later perspective of 2018, it makes most sense that we just face it—Griffith was a racist by heritage and upbringing. He was propagating the version of history taught to him by his father. But he may have learned something of the error of his ways later, as he saw the conflicts over his movie play out in the courts, watched it being used as a recruiting film for the new and more widespread Klan of the 1920’s and beyond, watched his legacy forever tarnished by this one film. A fundamental conflict informs all Griffith films, and it got more glaring as his career went on. That nature of that conflict is that Griffith was a director with one foot in the Victorian era and one foot in the future. His innovations in film narrative and technique became the future of film, but his movies became hopelessly outmoded, to the point where he was out of film altogether by 1931, and his last really important film was released in 1921.
It is tempting to hate The Birth of a Nation long before the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue at the end of the film. But if you simply cannot stomach it and decide to turn it off, you are missing a truly great silent film experience. It is a lesson in the power of film to be propaganda, to sell a lot of tickets polarizing an audience. Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, for instance, in the modern era, have taken full advantage of this power inherent in films, the power of the lens’s point of view, the power of editing. Also, Griffith’s film is unintentionally and richly comic in its broad portrayal of the blacks as slovenly, fried-chicken-eating, alcoholic, sexually predatory sub-humans. I may be wrong, but I think that African Americans would (or should) love, or at least love-to-hate, this film. It is so ridiculously over-the-top in its denigration of blacks that it has you rolling in the aisles (unless you are just too angry to find it funny.)
In my case, the film sent me rushing to the Internet to find out if there really was a majority black legislature in South Carolina during the Reconstruction period. It turns out that there was, although South Carolina is the only state where black people ever achieved (briefly) such a majority. Thankfully, modern researchers have done the work, since 1915, to find out who these black legislators were, and they were clearly not the unruly mob depicted in the movie. There are many human stories to tell about the free blacks and former slaves who became legislators, but Griffith doesn’t have any truck with the idea that any of them actually had any credentials. He is more interested in telling the story, handed down no doubt from his father, and reinforced by Mr. Dixon’s racist novel, about how the whites were briefly knocked down from their lofty position as rulers of the Old South, and how they valiantly fought to regain their rightful place. As it turns out, history is much different than the skewed view presented in the movie. The original Klan was ultimately outlawed as a terrorist organization, not remembered as the noble institution that saved the South from Reconstruction. And the conspiracy (ultimately successful) to put the blacks back in their place encompassed all of society in the South, not just the white-clad riders. After Reconstruction, with the black leadership once again suppressed in the South, it took until after the turn of the 20th century, and movements like the Harlem Renaissance, for the black voice to be heard again in the great cities of the North, like Chicago and New York, where many of them had migrated to escape the renewal of oppression in the South.
—Dale D. Dalenberg MD