He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch
his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious
use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence
of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of
These words by James Agee about D. W. Griffith are almost by
definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great
film critic. On the other hand, the equally distinguished critic Andrew Sarris
wrote about Griffith's masterpiece: "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation'
has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be
ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when
racism was hardly a household word."
are two more quotations about the film:
is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so
terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing it at
a White House screening. The words are quoted onscreen at the beginning of most
prints of the film
President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was
presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."--Letter
from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the
NAACP, which protested against the film's blackface villains and heroic Ku Klux
seems to know the source of the Wilson quote, which is cited in every
discussion of the film. Not dear Lillian Gish, whose "The Movies, Mr.
Griffith, and Me" is a touchingly affectionate and yet clear-eyed memoir a
man she always called "Mister" and clearly loved. And not Richard
Schickel, whose "D. W. Griffith: An American Life" is a great
biography. Certainly the quote is suspiciously similar to Coleridge's famous
comment about the acting of Edmund Kean ("like reading Shakespeare by
flashes of lightning”).
guess is that Wilson said something like it in private, and found it prudent to
deny when progressive editorialists attacked the film. Certainly "The
Birth of a Nation" (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences.
Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it
quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are
looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the
postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an
old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.
until the 1960s as the greatest American film, "Birth" is still
praised as influential, ground-breaking and historically important, yes--but is
it actually seen? Despite the release of an excellent DVD restoration from
Kino, it is all but unwatched. More people may have seen Griffith's
"Intolerance" (1916), made in atonement after the protests against
"Birth." It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that
I included Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919) in the first Great
Movies collection, but have only now arrived at "Birth of a Nation."
I was avoiding it.
it is an unavoidable fact of American movie history, and must be dealt with, so
allow me to rewind to a different quote from James Agee: "The most
beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in 'The
Birth of a Nation.' I have heard it praised for its realism, but it is also far
beyond realism. It seems to me to be a realization of a collective dream of
what the Civil War was like..."
have just looked at the battle charge again, having recently endured the pallid
pieties of the pedestrian Civil War epic "Gods and Generals," and I
agree with Agee. Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who
followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement
was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once
able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to
understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding
Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal.
will probably never lose his place in the pantheon, but there will always be
the blot of the later scenes of “Birth of a Nation.” It is a stark history
lesson to realize that this film, for many years the most popular ever made,
expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views. Miss Gish reveals
more than she realizes when she quotes Griffith's paternalistic reply to
accusations that he was anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am
against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of
and "The Birth of a Nation" were no more enlightened than the America
which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be
in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks
already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again
every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view,
and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That
it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.
understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the
difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us.
All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a
film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "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. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and
even something about evil.
it is possible to separate the content from the craft? Garry Wills observes
that Griffith's film "raises the same questions that Leni Riefenstahl's
films do, or Ezra Pound's poems. If art should serve beauty and truth, how can
great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies?"
crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like
to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an
insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil. In that case,
"The Birth of a Nation" is worth considering, if only for the
inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and
encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the
most useful statements against racism were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and "Huckleberry
of the sort seen in "The Birth of a Nation" has not been acceptable
for decades in American popular culture. Modern films make racism invisible,
curable, an attribute of villains, or the occasion for optimistic morality
plays. "Birth of a Nation" is unapologetic about its attitudes, which
are those of a white Southerner, raised in the 19th century, unable to see
African-Americans as fellow beings of worth and rights. It is based on Thomas
Dixon's racist play, The Clansman, and the fact that Griffith wanted to adapt
it reveals his own prejudices.
for example, was criticized for using white actors in blackface to portray his
black villains. There are bizarre shots where a blackface character acts in the
foreground while real African-Americans labor in the fields behind him. His
excuse, as relayed by Miss Gish: "There were scarcely any Negro actors on
the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he
had trained." But of course there were no Negro actors, because blackface
whites were always used, and that also explains why he did not need to train
blindness to the paradox in his own statement is illuminating. His blackface
actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black
actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the
makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black
actors could not have been used in such sexually-charged scenes, even if
Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them.
Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.
of the film's most objectionable scenes show the Ku Klux Klan riding to the
rescue of a white family trapped in a cabin by sexually predatory blacks and
their white manipulators. These scenes are credited with the revival of the
popularity of the Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared.
Watching them today, we are appalled. But audiences in 1915 were witnessing the
invention of intercutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen
before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were
thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds.
what they saw for the first time, we cannot see at all. Griffith assembled and
perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques
that have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since;
they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them. We, on the other
hand, are astonished by racist attitudes that were equally invisible to most
white audiences in 1915. What are those techniques? They begin at the level of
film grammar. Silent films began with crude constructions designed to simply
look at a story as it happened before the camera. Griffith, in his short films
and features, invented or incorporated anything that seemed to work to expand
that vision. He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and
demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell
a scene by cutting between wide (or "establishing") shots and various
medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details. The first closeup must have
come as an alarming surprise for its audiences; Griffith made them and other
kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story.
his valuable book On the History of Film Style, David Bordwell observes that
Griffith "is usually credited with perfecting the enduring artistic
resources of the story film." Bordwell has some quarrels with that
widely-accepted basic version of film history, but Bordwell lists Griffith's
innovations, and observes that the film "is often considered cinema's
of Griffith's key contributions was his pioneering use of cross-cutting to
follow parallel lines of action. A naive audience might have been baffled by a
film that showed first one group of characters, then another, then the first
again. From Griffith's success in using this technique comes the chase scene
and many other modern narrative approaches. The critic Tim Dirks adds to
cross-cutting no less than 16 other ways in which Griffith was an innovator,
ranging from his night photography to his use of the iris shot and color
"Birth of a Nation" is a film of great visual beauty and narrative
power. It tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of families
from both North and South, shows the flowing of their friendship, shows them
made enemies as the nation was divided, and in a battlefield scene has the sons
of both families dying almost simultaneously. It is unparalleled in its recreations
of actual battles on realistic locations; the action in some scenes reaches for
miles. For audiences at the time there would have been great interest in
Griffith's attempts to reproduce historic incidents, such as the assassination
of Lincoln, with exacting accuracy. His recreation of Sherman's march through
Georgia is so bloody and merciless that it awakened Southern passions all over
human stories of the leading characters have the sentiment and human detail we
would expect of a leading silent filmmaker, and the action scenes are filmed
with a fluid ease that seems astonishing compared to other films of the time.
Griffith uses elevated shots to provide a high-angle view of the battlefields,
and cuts between parallel actions to make the battles comprehensible; they are
not simply big tableaux of action.
when it comes to his version of the Reconstruction era, he tells the story of
the liberation of the slaves and its aftermath through the eyes of a Southerner
who cannot view African-Americans as possible partners in American
civilization. In the first half of the film the black characters are mostly
ignored in the background. In the second half, Griffith dramatizes material in
which white women are seen as the prey of lustful freed slaves, often urged on
by evil white Northern carpetbaggers whose goal is to destroy and loot the
South. The most exciting and technically accomplished sequence in the second
half of the film is also the most disturbing, as a white family is under siege
in a log cabin, attacked by blacks and their white exploiters, while the Ku
Klux Klan rides to the rescue.
Elsie (Lillian Gish), the daughter of the abolitionist Senator Stoneman, fights
off a sexual assault by Stoneman's mulatto servant Lynch. Stoneman has earlier
told Lynch "you are the equal of any man here." Returning home, he is
told by Lynch, "I want to marry a white woman," and pats him
approvingly on the shoulder. But when he is told his daughter Elsie is the
woman Lynch has in mind, Stoneman turns violent toward him--Griffith's way of
showing that the abolitionists and carpetbaggers lied to the freed slaves, to
manipulate them for greed and gain.
long third act of the film is where the most offensive racism resides. There is
no denying the effectiveness of the first two acts. The first establishes a
bucolic, idealistic view of America before the Civil War, with the implication
that the North should have left well enough alone. The second involves
unparalleled scenes of the war itself, which seem informed by the photographs
of Matthew Brady and have an powerful realism and conviction.
has a sure hand in the way he cuts from epic shots of enormous scope to small
human vignettes. He was the first director to understand instinctively how a
movie could mimic the human ability to scan an event quickly, noting details in
the midst of the larger picture. Many silent films moved slowly, as if afraid
to get ahead of their audiences; Griffith springs forward eagerly, and the
impact on his audiences was unprecedented; they were learning for the first
time what a movie was capable of.
slavery is the great sin of America, so "The Birth of a Nation" is
Griffith's sin, for which he tried to atone all the rest of his life. So
instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with as a 19th century Southerner
that the offenses in his film actually had to be explained to him. To his
credit, his next film, "Intolerance," was an attempt at apology. He
also once edited a version of the film that cut out all of the Klan material,
but that is not the answer. If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and
deal with it all.