It's America's first motion picture. We were nowhere close to having an MPAA. But, man alive, if we did...well, they'd probably give it a pass because the attitude of the country was super racist. No one should be watching this movie outside of academia. It is the most racist thing that I've ever seen and ever hope to see. It involves rape and violence. It is nearly constant blackface. It lies about history and portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the piece. This movie is without defense and shouldn't be viewed by anyone for entertainment.
DIRECTOR: D.W. Griffith
When I was post-college, I used to blog about movies, similarly to how I do now. But because I was in my early twenties and untouchable, I used to swear a lot in these movies. I'm sure that if I read those reviews, I'd cringe pretty hard. But right now, I wish I swore in my writing. I think that swearing in what is written is the sign of a poor writer, but I feel like this commentary needs to be laden with expletives for how I feel about this piece of cinematic trash. For those not in the know, America's first full length motion picture was an adaptation about a book named "The Clansman", a narrative where the advent of the Ku Klux Klan rescued America from the negro threat. It led to a second resurgence of the Klan. For a while there, it looked like the Klan was going to die off. But nope, Birth of a Nation came out and made America that much worse to live in.
I can blame the people of the time because we should have always been a base level of woke towards the plight of others. But I had to think of why this movie is just as evil as it is. I want to stress that: this movie is an evil film and I want to go back in time and punch D.W. Griffith in the throat for being as irresponsible as he was. (I haven't seen Intolerance yet, but I'm glad it bankrupted him.) But we're in a time before the Internet and television. The country is still remembering the Civil War. People were pretty racist and along comes this, admittedly, very well made movie. (That is probably the worst part. I'm not the first person to comment on it. The reason that Birth of a Nation matters is that it is a well-made movie, which means we have to keep on studying it.) Here comes the best looking movie yet and it is just confirmation biasing the heck out of everyone. It can rewrite history all it wants because no one can get the real message. I show this movie every year to my film class. It is fundamentally part of film history for multiple reasons. I thoroughly prep them for the things that they are going to see. But one of my students, immediately pointed out that "Of course this led to an uprising in the Klan." The movie presents so many imaginary moments as fact. It is incendiary and that content is meant to make the viewer angry. I know the entire country wasn't racist. There were all kinds of protests regarding this movie at the time. But Woodrow Wilson loved this movie. He has a quote in the movie introducing Part II of the film, lauding the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. To top it all off, it presents the Klan as the racist Avengers, solving all of the problems of the South through what appears to be justified violence.
Before I talk technical value, I have to say something else that is really gross about the movie. In this movie, there's a ton of blackface. There are genuine people of color acting as extras next to actors who are in blackface. The villains are mulatto. There's just insanely over-the-top ideas and propaganda attacking the black man and that's all gross. But one of the thing that rubbed me the wrong way upon watching it this time (I have to watch this movie every year) is the idea of the "good negro" versus the "evil negro." This bugged me this year. It is not only preaching to the already biased whites, but it teaches that there is a certain way to act if you are a person of color that is morally acceptable, that is few and far between. Shut up, movie. You are evil enough as it is. Also, I really can't stand the "rape the white woman" sequence. I think this takes the cake as the most mad I get in a movie or will ever get in a movie. I would say that this movie is better than this, but it really isn't. I precede the movie by stating that "Every time you think you've seen the most racist thing you have ever seen, it gets worse." One of the most famous shots of the film comes out of this moment. It is when the Klan gets a hold of this rapist. It is this line that just flat out screams, "The white men are heroes. The black men are rapists." We still see this today in cinema, but I'd like to think that it happens unintentionally and we are working to make it better.
But like I mentioned, the worst part is that the movie is actually really well made, especially considering that it is the first movie. If Star Wars was (more) racist, it had that level impact. Watch the movies before Birth of a Nation. None of them were full length motion pictures. There's some great stuff, no doubt. I love La Voyage dans la Lune. The Great Train Robbery is always a favorite. But they have that formalist style behind them. They are products of the theater scene and, while Melies jumps the medium into true art, it is in Birth of a Nation that the formula for film is discovered. It's three hours and fifteen minutes. That's a cinematic crime as is, but it doesn't really feel that long. Griffith understands pacing and spectacle. I'm going to get into his camera angles in a second, but that movie is actually made for entertainment. Again, we can't ignore the fact that it is a powerful piece of evil propaganda, but the movie is entertaining while watching it. The Civil War sequences are beyond comprehension from me. I'm going to put this into perspective. I love The Great Train Robbery, right. That short film is very basic. It is made with what appears to be plywood sets, very much like a traditional play. Look at the clock in that shot. It is only a few inches thick. Most things in Birth of a Nation are meticulously crafted. Nothing feels like a quickly made set. When it gets to the Civil War sequence, there was no CG army to do all of this stuff. Yet the battles are fully manned. The smoke is really filling the air. I can't help but compare Griffith to DeMille and his attitude of scope. When I see a lot of movies mimicking actual wars, it is always conveniently one of the smaller skirmishes. This never really pulls that. It gives everything full out. Also, jumping forward to one of the scenes that I actually like. I love the Lincoln assassination stuff. I'm amazing how reverent this movie is towards Lincoln. It never really criticizes him. The concept behind the title is that, with the Klan in place, the nation (White nation) can heal and form a single resistance against the black and progressive menace. I guess to do that, the movie needs to slightly deify Lincoln, but I digress. The assassination at Ford's Theatre, in isolation, is extremely effective. If the rest of the movie wasn't surrounding it, I would think that it was the greatest silent short of the era. But the rest of the movie sucks.
Then there is the cinematography. I swear, you have to watch this in comparison to the rest of the things going on. The guy has a tracking show in the movie. Think about the size of the cameras in the day and the bounciness of the road. I still don't know how he pulled off the brief tracking shot of the Klan riding horses, but it is impressive. The cinematography is dynamic and I'd like to remind you right now that I'm planning on going back in time to punch Griffith in the throat. The action sequences are decently choreographed, if not evil in themselves. All in all, we still kind of use Birth of a Nation as a formula for structure. But I'm going to go back to ragging on Griffith. I also hate Griffith as an individual. The entire first minute of the movie stresses how much this is Griffith's work and Griffith's work alone, shy of the source material. The guy was very full of himself and I know that he had a hand in developing United Artists, but shut up. I hate this guy so much.
We're in an era where a common argument we are having is whether or not we can separate art from the artists. I don't know if Birth of a Nation even matches that argument. I love Annie Hall, but Woody Allen angers me. That's not what I'm discussing. Birth of a Nation is a technical marvel that is evil. I hate giving it any merits whatsoever because I view it more of an act of genocide than I do actually watching it as a film. It's like admiring one of Hitler's military strategies. That makes me feel icky all over. I know that as long as I'm teaching film, I'm going to have to watch this movie over and over again. But you know what? The best part about finally writing this review is that I don't ever have to question whether or not I have to write about this movie ever again.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.