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Film Review: The Birth of a Nation
In 1915, D. W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which starred Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, and George Siegmann. Considered the first full length film produced in America, the box office gross is estimated to be between $11 and $60 million.
Told in two parts, separated by an intermission, the first part depicts the nation before, during and after the American Civil War from the perspective of the abolitionist Stoneman family and the secessionist Cameron family.
The second part depicts reconstruction and the south being rebuilt without its dependency on slavery. However, violent controversy erupts over rights and legal issues. While the Republicans try to influence the votes of Southern blacks, the Ku Klux Klan is formed to disenfranchise them and the mulattoes conspire to bring the white man down
The Birth of a Nation is kind of like the weird, yet rich family member that shows up at gatherings. No one really wants to talk to him because of how they act. But they can’t be ignored thanks to all the contributions they’ve made to the family. On one hand, the film was a technological breakthrough that changed filmmaking for the better. It’s thanks to this film that moving cameras became the norm and while most of the shots are stationary, the shots that do move along with the actors, mostly when the Klan is charging, are done incredibly well. Furthermore, speaking of the charges, nearly every cavalry charge borrows from the charges seen in the latter half of the film. There’s also the editing, in which Griffith defined the act of editing for continuity. If it wasn’t for this film, quite a few movies today probably wouldn’t be as exciting or as engaging as they are.
Yet, where the film was groundbreaking technologically, it's incredibly racist in both a modern light and for its time as many considered it to have gone too far for 1915.
The first half of the film isn’t all that bad in regards to tone. It deals with the American Civil War, how friends and families on both sides were thrust against each other and turned into bitter enemies. Furthermore, it shows that the effects of war don’t stop at the front with the soldiers as a militia raids the Cameron house. What's more is that while the militia being made up of black men and led by a white man can be construed as racist, there were more than a few instances of that happening during the war.
The film then continues onto the second half where the freed slaves rape, pillage and burn while the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes who put a stop to their evil ways. It does try to come off as neutral though, attempting to use a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln and having an old, black housemaid come to the aid of her white employer. In this attempt at neutrality, it doesn’t side with slavery or with those pushing for racial equality. Instead it supports the Jim Crow laws and has the Klan rescue Elsie Stoneman from a forced marriage, set to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.” There's also a scene where one of the Klan uses one of the black people as a kind of club, which only furthers the notion that this was going too far even in the time of its release.
None of this is to say that this nation hasn’t had a racist past as there are more than a few examples throughout history where that is apparent. However, it shouldn't be forgotten about or left by the wayside in the annals of history as that does a disservice to the nation's history and the time period as a whole. The issue is that the film does much more than bring up the racism found in the nation's past as it embraces and glorifies it. As a whole, the film probably should have ended after the first half, though doing so might not have brought about what made it such an influential film. On the other hand, there might have been someone else to consider making use of the breakthroughs this film employed or Griffith could have brought them about in another film.
As a whole, it's one of those films that's important because of how it changed and influenced cinema, but not much else can be said for it past the first half.
the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion
Awards & Recognitions
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National Film Preservation Board, USA
- National Film Registry
Online Film & Television Association
- OFTA Film Hall of Fame - Motion Picture