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The Birth of a Nation

Great Movie

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 one man.

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."

Here are two more quotations about the film:

"It 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

"...the 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 Klanners.

Nobody 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”).

My 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.

Cited 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.

But 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..."

I 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.

Griffith 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 our lives."

Griffith 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.

To 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.

But 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?"

The 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 Finn.")

Racism 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.

Griffith, 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 any.

Griffith's 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.

Some 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.

Today, 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.

In 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 first masterpiece."

One 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 tinting.

Certainly "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 again.

The 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.

Yet 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

The 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.

Griffith 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.

As 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.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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Film Credits

The Birth of a Nation movie poster

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Rated PG

190 minutes


Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman

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