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Legacy Review

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I don’t even know where to begin. Imagine me staring speechless at a blank text box for several minutes as the prelude to this review.

I knew that The Birth of a Nation is racist; and yet I was flabbergasted just how racist it is. I also knew that The Birth of a Nation is brilliant, groundbreaking filmmaking; and yet I was flabbergasted just how brilliant it is.

I guess I’ll start with the “brilliant.”

The two previous films I’ve viewed during this stroll through film history were from 1902 and 1903, and are clearly “proto-films” — shorts that hadn’t figured out how to really make use of a camera or tell a robust story. Certainly the acting lacks nuance. Stage work captured on film, in essence.

While I expected a leap in cinematic language in this 12 year jump, I didn’t expect this much of one. The formal craft is vastly more mature: The intermingling of close-ups, long shots, and medium shots; the elaborate cross-cutting; the audacious framing of scenes from different angles; the flow of scene to scene in smooth editing.

On top of that, Griffith has a clear instinct for the artistry and emotional potential of film as storytelling. Close-ups of happy couples in each others’ arms are tender and moving; extreme long shots capture the awe of battle or the chaos of riots.

With the entire frame typically in focus (or irised into smaller circles or other shapes), there is vivid period detail in every frame. Sets and costumes are peerless reconstructions — though it’s good to remember that this movie was as far from the Civil War as today is from 1970.

For such a long movie, it’s rarely stodgy in its pacing: The variety of visual techniques and clip of the plot points made the reality of watching this movie not nearly as dire as I feared going into it.

But. The story that all of that is in service of. The “racist” part of the equation. Yikes.

The film is a 3 hour epic broken into two halves: 1) before and during the Civil War, 2) Reconstruction afterwards. The film follows a Northern and Southern family with strong connections as they navigate the War and its aftermath.

The first half is overflowing with casual racism. It’s in America’s muscle memory, of course — especially of a conservative white southerner like Griffith in the early 20th century — but it’s jarring to see so it on full display: Actors in tarry, ugly blackface (except the extras working the fields and doing housework, who are actually Black); The rhetoric of noble causes and states rights; The depiction of plantation owners as kind paternal figures; Black leaders as lecherous and corrupt.

Yet, this racism is really only on the fringes of the story and intertitles. In fact, this first half is borderline watchable, especially the jaw-dropping battle scenes and the amazing reproductions of historical events like Lincoln’s assassination.

The second half is far more direct in its evil. It depicts the founding and rise of the KKK during Reconstruction in heroic terms. Its racism is the crux of the plot and so filthy that it literally made me queasy to watch. Every freedman is shown to be hunched, sloppy, sexually unhinged, drunken, stinky and undignified. Black leaders are shown to unfit lechers, openly scheming about stealing away white girls and creating a “Black empire” to destroy whites.

So who should come in? The KKK, those “heroic” vigilantes. They “bravely” lynch a Black man (off screen) who was pursuing a romance with a white woman. That woman died after diving off a cliff rather than engage with a person of color.

The final climax is a cross-cut of two threads: 1) A horde of crazed Black people attempt to break into a cabin where white people are hiding. Sexual frenzy towards the white women inside is heavily suggested. 2) One of our white heroines is abducted by a Black politician who wants to make her his “Queen.” In both plot threads, the KKK rises to save the white people.

And then we get the denouement: The KKK intimidating Black people at the polls in the next election… again, depicted heroically! And a final double wedding of our white couples, God smiling down on them.

It all just left me speechless and horrified.

In addition to having a more vile and race-focused plot, the second half is also a bit less astonishing in its visual bravura. But the craft is still pristine, and there are plenty of breathtaking moments: the sheer spectacle and chaos of the riots, the weirdly abstract and heavenly final white wedding, and a genuinely suspenseful sequence of a Black man stalking and chasing down a white woman.

What makes this movie so horrifying is that it’s both so racist and so brilliant: If it was anything other than a masterpiece from a craft perspective, it would be a lot easier to dismiss.

But it’s not, and that makes me hate it so much. That it is so good at telling a story makes that story all the more the kick in the teeth.

In 2003, Roger Ebert wrote a compelling essay on this film and how the modern world can come to grips with it. I love his thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit, but I think he comes down too kind on the film: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-birth-of-a-nation-1915

This is not simply an issue of an emotional reaction to a film or a bad story told well. It’s an artifact of hate, something that created real and lasting damage in this world. It was a motivational tool for racists and Klan members. It directly led to violence and hate in well-documented ways: https://www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film

For those reasons, I strongly recommend against watching this film unless you are deep into studies of film history. Search YouTube for the battle clips or the Lincoln assassination set piece, sure, but don’t dignify it with three hours of your life.

America was built on the back of exploiting people of color, so it’s only appropriate that its first masterpiece of filmmaking craft would do the same. But that doesn’t make it any less dispiriting.

PS: By strange chance, I finished watching this movie and drafting the review hours before pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building. It was one of the most striking images in recent years of white supremacy and privilege driving the reins of conservative politics. As the cliche goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

(I’m attempting to watch 1001 Films to See Before Your Die in chronological order. This is film number 3. Up next is the 7-hour French serial Les Vampires.)

Is It Good?

Not Good (2/8)

Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.


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