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Birth of a Nation (1915), Movie Analysis PART 2: Technical Innovations and Directorial Analysis

Updated on March 6, 2013

The Birth of a Nation is an epic film directed and produced by D. W. Griffith in 1915. It depicts the social reality of the era and the political atmosphere at that time. It details the civil war era and the plight of Black Americans for their rights. The Birth of a Nation also graphically portrayed the Ku Klux Klan and their involvement in suppressing slave uprising in the south. Despite the story line and the controversial context and theme of the movie, The Birth of a Nation is a film that utilized technological innovation and revolutionized techniques on film-making. Its influence over artistic presentation had inspired improvement and modernization on the way that movies are created today.

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Significance of Music in the Film

The music sets the tempo and the tone of the film. Since this is a silent movie, dialogues come in the form of music. Through the changes in the pace, melody and beat, and other dimensions of the flow of the music, Birth of a Nation (1915) was able to interpret and highlight scenes throughout the movie.

The music brings the story to life. The use of the orchestra gives depth to the scenes. Moreover, it makes the visual movement interesting. For example, the musical score will play an interlude to emphasize the romantic scene between the two lovers; an upbeat tone during a scene with a statesman having an affair with his mulatto slave; and a bit of an upbeat tempo during scenes with chumps frolicking around the plantation house. The music acts as the motivating factor for viewers to continue on watching the movie.

Technical Innovations

The Birth of the Nation was for its credit an epic movie that have made used of various techniques that are still being used today such as the cross-cutting between two scenes to create a montage-effect which was a technique used throughout the film. An example of which is the scene on the gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Another is the use of historical context in telling the story. Elaborate costume and scenery or backdrop was used to recreate the era on which the story was set. Elaborate use of extras to make a scene convincing like the battle scenes and the closing scene on the streets with KKKs on their horses. Panning, Irish-shots, high angled shots, fade outs and cameo-profiles were also utilized to create a dramatic effect or highlight a scene.

Though Griffith’s movie was controversial in its content, there was no question in his ingenuity in telling a story through film. For one, he made use of elaborate costumes to tell a story based on a particular era. The setting was also indicative of the time frame of the story. Another is that he made use of 'close up' views to highlight or emphasize characters or events. The use of circular dark frame to focus a person and slowly removing the dark areas to view the whole picture provides depth and dimension on the importance of the scene or that of the character. I.e. The walk around the plantation, zooming in on the portrait of a young woman, and focusing on the assassin during the theatre scene on the assassination of President Lincoln.


Griffith’s Attitude towards the Northerners & Southerners

The Northerners were the visionaries of the time. The Southerners on the other hand are the people who are already contented with the way they live their lives. They enjoy the luxury of being the masters of vast plantations and all the perks that came along with it. They try to hold on to their traditional and comfortable way of life that they oppose political and social change.

Though the black were all depicted in a negative way, the innocent blacks were the hard-working and fun-loving plantation workers. They were contented with working in the cotton fields and find joy in entertaining themselves and their masters through dances during the two hour dinner brakes that they get out of the entire day that they spent working in the fields. The radical blacks were portrayed as marooning savages whose aim is to elicit social chaos. There was not much focus on their sentiments as to why they have acted the way they did.

The Northerners and the Southerners were characterized as the concept of “liberty” and “union.” Northerners and Southerners were depicted as brothers with close ties to each other. But civil unrest in the South caused by angry black mob caused the two brothers friction in their relationship. In the end, they have somehow found a way to unify and make peace with each other.

Griffith’s personal philosophy on society as reflected in the film

It was quite obvious that Griffith was racist. Not just because of the way he portrays the black but through the depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. His deeper thoughts on society and political bias were seen on the opening of the film and the way he highlighted the assassination of President Lincoln. Moreover, his interpretation of historic events through collective social sentiments seemed to have questionable validity.

Society was for Griffith a stage for a romantic storytelling of the battle between good and evil. He also tries to convince the viewers to have the political views that he has. His love for history and details and picturesque settings has made the details of the film richer. However his personal philosophy is definitely biased. He has the typical mentality of the Southerners during that era.

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Major Weaknesses

From a modern perspective, it will be quite obvious that there are hundreds of ways that the film could be criticized. But looking at it from the same time frame it was made; I’d say the presentation was innovative. To Griffith’s credit, he was able to identify social and political issues of that era, in vivid detail through flash cards, costumes, props, and settings utilized in the film. However it is not just the technique used that a film could be critiqued but on its content as well.

Watching the film is like looking at the interpretation of historical events through the prism of a typical white American of the early 1900s. It was a movie for the whites that seemed to glorify their rights as masters of the land. It is very offensive that the movie’s aim (as claimed by the director in the first “flash card”) was to showcase the effects of war on the society. But this is not so. It was a movie turned propaganda in affirming that the blacks are the enemy and the whites are the heroes. Furthermore it tries to rationalize the acts of the Ku Klux Klan as rightfully justified because the blacks are “evil.”

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