Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Birth of A Nation (1915): A Review


How can one judge The Birth of A Nation? On the one hand, it is a brilliant film: a mighty spectacle where all the elements of what is now known as film-making came together, the first true motion picture.

On the other hand, it's a gigantic pile of garbage, filled with the most disgusting imagery any movie has ever shown this side of a snuff film. Nothing makes up for the horrific premise or the portrayal of the black characters in this Ode To Bigotry.

However, The Birth of A Nation signaled the Birth of Cinema as a true art form. It's a yin and yang situation, but in a larger sense the film still not only has the power to inflame and enrage, a remarkable achievement for a movie close to a hundred years old. It's a film from which we can draw all kinds of lessons about art, propaganda, and public tastes.

The Birth of A Nation covers the period just before the Civil War, the war itself, and the early days of Reconstruction as seen through the lives of two families: one Northern, one Southern.  The Northern family is the Stonemans: Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), his sons Phil (Elmer Clifton), and Tod (Robert Harron) and his daughter Elise (Lillian Gish).

The Southern family is the Camerons: "kindly Master Cameron" (Spottiswoode Aitken), his wife (Josephine Crowell), and their large family.  The three sons from youngest to oldest: Duke (Maxfield Stanley), Wade (George Beranger), and Ben (Henry Walthall), and their two daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Mae Marsh).  The Stonemans, in particular Congressman Stoneman, are firm abolitionists, while the Camerons are benevolent slaveholders.  However, the younger generation are friends.  In short supply, while visiting the Camerons Phil falls in love with Margaret while Ben becomes enamored of Elsie.

Now, the war commences.  In a sad twist, Phil and Duke end up taking each other's lives in battle, while Wade dies after the fall of Atlanta.  Ben is nearly killed at Petersberg, but Phil, recognizing his friend, saves him and sends him to a hospital in Washington, where Elsie is a nurse.  A relationship begins between them, but Ben is to be hanged for treason.  Only the personal intervention of President Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) with a distraught Mrs. Cameron and Elsie pleading his case prevents this.  The war ends, and Ben returns to a ruined home.  Lincoln is assassinated, and the Radicals take over.
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Reconstruction begins, and with it a reign of terror where the blacks now rule the whites.  Congressman Stoneman's protege is Silas Lynch (George Seigmann), a mulatto who has secret aspirations of a Black Empire to rule over the Southern whites.  With Stoneman's help, Lynch now has blacks in the South Carolina House of Representatives and impose their will.  Ben is offended by how they rule, so now he is inspired to create a new organization where they can take their stand against this oppressive regime: the Ku Klux Klan.

Stoneman comes to South Carolina to inspect the work, and the romance between Elise and Ben resumes, while Phil is rebuffed by a bitter Margaret.  However, things take an ugly turn: Flora becomes the object of lust by simple Negro Gus (Walter Long), and now with Lynch as Lieutenant Governor, decides he has the right to a white woman.  Flora commits suicide by jumping to her death rather than bear the shame of miscegenation.  Now is the time to strike at Lynch, and Ben rallies his KKK to fight for a just cause.

Lynch now goes too far, demanding he marry Elsie.  Even Congressman Stoneman believes this to be wrong, but is held hostage.  The Camerons, having fled their home for their own safety, hide out at a tiny cabin of former Union soldiers, now united in their need to preserve their "Aryan birthright".  The Klan rides to the rescue, first to Lynch's mansion, then in an epic race to the cabin.  With the White Power triumphant, the Klan ensures the blacks know their place.  The Birth of A Nation ends with an epilogue where Christ at last ends all wars.

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Again, The Birth of A Nation really is two films; one is a great leap forward in how a film is put together, where we can see the symbolic birth of cinema as an art form, where a narrative can be told in a thrilling and brilliant matter.

The other is a vile and cringe-inducing series of images that are so jarring to our eyes, and I imagine, to many eyes in 1915, that it's highly uncomfortable at the very least to watch. 

If we focus on the positive, on the monumental achievement D.W. Griffith brought with The Birth of A Nation, we can see just how important and powerful the film is.  Griffith created in the film some truly powerful moments and fully used the ability of film to take you beyond what was on the screen to create an emotional impact.

Take the interaction between Elsie and Ben.  Ben holds a dove in his hands and they both caress and kiss it lightly, and in that Ben "accidentally" brushes his cheek up to Elsie.  There is a tenderness there that appears so effortless, a credit to both Griffith as director and Gish and Walthall as actors.

In particular, there is Lillian Gish, who was luminous and who communicated a great deal with just her face.  Granted, some of the acting, such as Seigmann as the wicked mulatto Lynch, were on the broad side, and even Gish did appeared slightly exaggerated to our Twenty-First Century eyes, but on the whole Griffith directed the actors to a more natural manner of behavior that was also a leap forward in how screen acting had to be tamed from the broader theatrical manner. 

Image result for the birth of a nation 1915The Birth of A Nation has many such moments, highlight by the brilliant and then-revolutionary editing.  It is hard not to react emotionally to when the younger Stoneman and Cameron brothers meet one last time on the battlefield, thus keeping their promise to reunite but not in the way they intended.

We also see a beautiful moment when Mrs. Cameron has had her only surviving son spared by order of The President.  Lincoln, all stoic yet caring, has just signed Colonel Cameron's release.  We see Mrs. Cameron hesitate and then come close to embracing the President in a motherly embrace of thanks, only to hesitate and decide it is not dignified while Lincoln is thoroughly unaware, all the action taking place behind his back.  The audience reacts emotionally, and Griffith, in his genius, gives us a human moment within the larger scope of the Civil War.

This is one of the things that makes The Birth of A Nation perhaps the first true feature film: a mixing of the epic with the intimate.  Again and again, by putting the larger struggle of America's most brutal war within the scope of two families, we are reminded of the human cost.  Griffith understood that by inter-cutting between two places within the same time frame he could create that emotional reaction with an audience.

I think the best example of this is when Colonel Cameron is at the Battle of Petersburg.  As the epic battle ranges on, Griffith cuts to the remaining Cameron family members, deep in prayer for the last son, before going back to the vast battlefield.  This is the first time in film where we leave a scene for somewhere else for no other reason than to have a human moment, to have that emotional connection.  It is a brilliant moment.

We also see how Griffith was pushing cinema to be a true art form in technical matters.  The ball at the Cameron plantation Piedmont has sweeping camera work, while the bonfires around town intercut with the jubilant dancers sets and builds on the mood of celebration at the war's onset.  The filming of the Battle at Petersburg, with a mix of wide angles and close-ups, has almost a documentary-like feel to it.

The climatic race of the Ku Klux Klan to rescue the Camerons trapped by Lynch's troops, taking us between the people inside the cabin as the siege intensifies and the riders racing towards them has an extraordinary pacing where an audience can get caught up in the thrill of whether the "Aryans" will be rescued from the "crazed" Negro mob.

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Now we come to the rub, a terrible stain on a brilliant and revolutionary production.  The images of African-Americans in The Birth of A Nation are still jarring, even shocking even given the time it was made and its setting. 

The Birth of A Nation appears to go out of its way to make the black and mixed-race characters as vile, grotesque, stupid, and rapacious as possible.  A particularly notorious scene is when the South Carolina House of Representatives with a majority-black membership meets.  We are treated to scenes of inept black idiots: representatives drinking, eating chicken, even taking their shoes off and putting their bare feet on their desks.  Griffith is clearly stating that blacks were not fit to rule themselves, let alone the "noble white race".

He also has the stereotypical imagery of happy Negroes working for their 'kindly massa', dancing for joy before them; a later dance number with someone eating watermelon is just shuddering.

There is a brief scene of when African-Americans are first allowed to vote, and we see the black voter grin wildly when he stuffs a second ballot in the box while the African-American observer nods approval.  Somehow, this to me was another moment where Griffith was not only painting with a wide brush, but feeding into stereotypes of the 'duplicitous Negro'.  It's almost as if he couldn't stop himself.

Even if we could put the portrayal of African-Americans as buffoons aside (a tall order to be sure), it is the imagery of blacks as dangerous and sexually wanton in particular towards white women, that is the most jarring and vicious by any standard.  In particular it is how both the characters of Gus and Silas Lynch are desirous of white women and are so overcome with lust that they literally pursue one to her death that only feeds to the idea of the dangers of miscegenation. 

Related imageHaving all the black and mulatto characters played by white actors in blackface only makes it more insulting.  Granted, I doubt any black actor would have appeared in anything so demeaning, but somehow having clearly white people playing these "evil" black characters makes things even worse.  Holding the black characters who stay loyal to their white overlords to be the noble souls while those who "don't know their place" be thoroughly irredeemable only adds fuel to the fire.

I couldn't help think that the siege of the cabin where the crazed mob was attacking the noble Aryans was reminiscent of the story of Lot in Sodom from the Book of Genesis.  Whether this was the intent or not I have no way of knowing.  That's just a thought.

Somehow, I can't help think that if Griffith, a Son of the South, had focused more on the Stoneman/Cameron stories and less on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of A Nation would have been easier to watch.  Once we get into Reconstruction that's when the film in terms of story all but collapses.

 As it stands, we have the film as it is: a mixture of brilliant film-making and awful storytelling.  At least in that respect, The Birth of A Nation appears to have set the precedent for so many future American productions.

The Birth of A Nation is a brilliant film in terms of structure, of editing, of storytelling.  It is also difficult to watch because it goes so wildly overboard in trying to make the case of the rapacious blacks overwhelming the pure whites and of the nobility of a terrorist organization like the Ku Klux Klan. 

In terms of cinema, the film is one of the most important ones ever made.  We get what we understand as a 'movie' from it, and therefore it deserves to be ranked as one of the greats.  In terms of the images themselves, now we look and cannot fathom how anyone didn't think they would be upsetting to say the least.  However, to deny The Birth of A Nation its place as one of the greatest films because it was so groundbreaking would be to deny history.

The Birth of A Nation can be considered the birth of cinema, but its achievements are tainted with the stain of Intolerance

DECISION: A+ (the film)
DECISION: F (the content)


  1. I think your decision sums up exactly how I feel about the film. It's a masterpiece that is also exceedingly vile (so much so that it was protested in 1915!). Griffith's follow-up feature, Intolerance: Love's Struggle through the Ages, is just as good a film without being totally obnoxious.

    1. I think Griffith was far too enamored of his own romantic view of the South to have a clear eye on this. A very flawed but brilliant film.


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