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.
Full context: I had recently watched A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery. Up next in my curated tour through film history via 1001 Movies to See Before You Die is The Birth of a Nation, which I’ve only ever known by reputation and stills. In fact, this was my first DW Griffith film.
From what I’d read I knew that The Birth of a Nation is a huge leap forward in cinematic technique; a brilliant piece of innovation and craftsmanship. Yet I was floored just how much of a brilliant leap it is. I also knew it is a racist film; and yet in practice I was flabbergasted just how vile and racist it actually is.
We must confront both poles, so I guess I’ll start with the “brilliant.”
The two previous films I’d viewed during this project are from 1902 and 1903. Each is clearly a “proto-film,” to use a term I invented. They are primitive shorts that hadn’t yet figured out how to really make use of a camera or tell a robust story — single-reel little novelties. Novelties with artistry and made with skill and passion, yet undeniably small. Even the basic building blocks of film — acting, editing, mise en scene, direction — were still works in progress. At heart, both feel like one-act plays captured on film, only heightened in some way.
While I expected a leap in technique in this 12 year jump during this formative era, I didn’t expect this much of one. The formal craft is vastly more mature: Griffith blends close-ups, long shots, and medium shots for clear cinematic purpose. The editing is remarkably sophisticated, and includes dramatic cross-cutting and smooth flow between shots and scenes. Shots are audaciously framed from different angles, throwing us in the middle of the action.
On top of all 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 to draw our focus to snippets), 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. Much of the cast and crew involved had lived through the war (which I suspect Griffith and many involved would have labeled something like “The War of Northern Aggression”).
If nothing else, the sheer runtime and consistency of quality across that runtime is astounding. The twelve-reel film is typically screened at 3 hours today; compare that to A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery which both clock in close to 10 minutes.
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 overwhelming cinematic technique 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 and aims of rape towards the white women inside are 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 contains both of those extremes. It is both so racist and so brilliant: If it was anything other than a masterpiece from a craft perspective, a groundbreaking achievement of filmmaking, then it would be a much easier shit stain to wipe away and forget.
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. It has become one of the authoritative takes on the film:
“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.
I love his thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit, but I think he comes down too kind on the film in his essay.
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. Per History.com:
Until the movie’s debut, the Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865 by Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, was a regional organization in the South that was all but obliterated due to government suppression. But The Birth of a Nation’s racially charged Jim Crow narrative, coupled with America’s heightened anti-immigrant climate, led the Klan to align itself with the movie’s success and use it as a recruiting tool… [KKK founder William Joseph] Simmons seized on the film’s popularity to bolster the Klan’s appeal.
In other words, it didn’t just depict the concept of hatred. It inspired it and weaponized it: As the KKK has done great evil, so this film is a key piece of that vile narrative.
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.)