“The Birth of a Nation” can be seen as the original sin of cinema. Have we really come so so far? I’m writing this at a time when America has seen the rise of Donald Trump, a man who is very close to becoming the next President, and he’s done that by spewing hateful, racist rhetoric and has been helped along too much by mainstream media who didn’t shut him up sooner. I recently read an article that stated, due to Trump’s popularity it can be argued that white supremacist groups are now having a bigger voice than ever on media outlets such as CNN, and FOX News to name a few. Trump’s rise to power seems to have opened up an old wound that won’t stay shut in America, and one that gives every blow hard bigot a chance to share their opinions on the world stage.
This wound of racism can be found throughout the history of America, and can be traced even in the history of American cinema with the most early pioneering film, and the most racist mainstream film ever to come out “The Birth of a Nation”. I’ve been wanting to talk about “Birth” for a long time, and it seems only fitting, and timely especially now. Many might not know of “Birth” unless you’ve taken a film class, or are affectionados of classic or silent film, or you just happen to be a member of the KKK, for which it was used as a recruiting tool.
“Birth of a Nation” is famous for being arguably the first American epic, a civil war story that documents both the war itself and its reconstruction. It was directed by D.W. Griffith who is known as the Godfather of film. Griffith introduced innovations we now take for granted; he used close-ups, fade-outs, iris shots, and cross-cutting to create deeper, emotional scenes. His close-ups are indeed wonderful especially when he captured the face of his greatest star Lillian Gish who appeared in his most famous films and who is most often thought of as the first lady of cinema.
In “Birth”, Griffith utilizes these innovations to great effect, it’s easy to see how audiences could be in such awe of the film on a purely technical level. Take the main battle scene where we see a confederate soldier charge towards a Union army waving the confederate flag and symbolically ramming it down the enemy’s cannon before he is wounded. To get this effect, Griffith rigged the camera onto a vehicle to follow the charge, the camera being close to the ground and on the soldier’s face, able to see the drama, and intensity up close, this is the creation of a film language we still use today, it’s important to note that. Or take the finale, the one where the Ku Klux Klan become the heroes of the film as Griffith cross cuts between a group of white southerners held down in a cabin by radical black men, and another scene involving Lillian Gish and her father held hostage by a negro politician who is drunk on his own power now that black people have the right the vote and marry white women if they choose. Griffith brilliantly cuts between these two scenes and those brave hooded knights in white as they mount their horses and race to save all the white people before the black men take control of their country. The scene is so well done and impressive it’s enough to make you throw up in your mouth a little bit.
There are many great things technically working in “Birth” that make it so important, but there are so many things that are ultimately wrong that should outweigh its importance. The film is a white man’s depiction of what occurred before and after the Civil War, which to them could be thought of as true, and everyone including President Woodrow Wilson praised the film for its historic accuracy. This is not a black person’s story, they aren’t even really seen as fully fleshed out people, mostly caricatures who are good, faithful slaves, or power-hungry black people. The most disturbing scenes all concern the slaves who are occasionally depicted by real black actors, but the more prominent ones are white people performing in black face. Black face was common early on in cinema, lord help me even the great stars like Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, and Bing Crosby were all seen in black face in at least one of their films, a common norm, and an embarrassment when seen now in any form. Even the pioneering film in sound “The Jazz Singer” has Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in black face, another innovative film scarred by racism. But in “Birth”, the black make-up on the white actors is easily noticeable, even the film’s main villain, a black Governor named “Lynch” isn’t hidden too well from his caucasian features. To add insult to injury, the black actors all play second fiddle sometimes filling in as background, it makes you wonder what they could possibly be thinking about this film they are in.
In the beginning of the film we are treated to what might be called casual racism with the white ideal of what the slaves’ living quarters looked like. They are seen living in very poorly looking conditions but they don’t seem to mind, as they’re shown dancing and celebrating, grateful I guess for what they have, as if to say giving them their freedom would only damage their already peaceful existence. (It’s important to note no whippings or lynchings are ever depicted in this film, while the loyal slaves themselves are the only ones who are sympathized with).
But it’s later with the reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the images become much more potent. Perhaps the harshest scene comes when the Klan track down and African-American man after he is seen responsible for the death of the main Klansman’s sister. There is an eeriness to the scene after the man is captured and the Klan institute a ritualistic mob rule trial on him, eventually killing him, and throwing him on the doorstep of the “evil” black Governor. No matter how you look at it, the scene comes off as disturbing, not just with the actions of the Klan members, but also with the idea that in this scene their actions are shown as justified, Griffith is creating a myth for the Klan, and it’s terrifying.
It was this scene in particular that had me thinking of maybe the greatest innovation “The Birth of a Nation” offered, and that’s the absolute power of the moving image. “The Birth of a Nation” has been thought of as an argument for content not really having to matter in film or in art, because despite its subject it can still stand as a masterpiece of film. But shouldn’t this content matter? I’m asking this because I’m finding it very difficult to separate myself from this type of content, one that can be thought of as damaging, or dangerous. This content was powerful enough for the KKK to use it as a recruiting tool, they were moved enough by the images this film produced, watching it all come together so majestically by a technical innovator, they chose it as their “call to arms” piece of propaganda. And here we are, 101 years after this film was released, watching the same people this film inspired on television promoting a man full of his own hate filled content and who could very well be living in the White House in the next couple of months.
I don’t think “The Birth of a Nation” has properly been dealt with, I feel like it gets swept under the rug so easily as an embarrassment to cinema history, yet I still feel its message in today’s society. No, it probably doesn’t get shown very often unless you do attend a film class, I doubt Donald Trump even knows it exists, but it’s such a powerful document of a certain kind of history, the damage of it has already been done.
Yes there has been progress with filmmakers downright denouncing “Birth of a Nation” with their own revisionist tales just recently with Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, Tarantino’s own “middle finger to Griffith” “Django Unchained”, and Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, a film which to me parallel’s so many scenes from “Birth”, but turns it on its head.
As for D.W. Griffith, he is a complicated figure in film. He made some other notable films, and after “Birth” was criticized for its inherent racism, something that Griffith was totally oblivious about, he made a sort of apology the next year with “Intolerance”, which depicted prejudice throughout the ages, that film was even more epic, innovative, and ambitious than “Birth”. In his late years, Griffith didn’t get much work and died an alcoholic. He’s still seen as the Grandfather of film, the Directors guild even has a lifetime achievement award named after him, something I would doubt a director like Spike Lee would ever accept.
Film has a long line of racism in its history, and as a fan of classic cinema, I won’t try to justify it, a lot of films have to be seen within the context of the time they were made. Hollywood films in particular pandered much to the American myth, but as films evolve they can be deconstructed or scrutinized more. “The Birth of a Nation” never seems to be a film anyone likes to talk about, mostly because it represents the worst period in America’s history in the worst possible way. But it still exists, we can’t extinguish it, it should be dealt with, for those who would call film art, this should be seen as it, it’s not beautiful to look at but art doesn’t have to be. I’m an outsider looking at American culture now, and to me it’s ugly, “The Birth of a Nation” can be thought of as film that shows why it’s so ugly.