Film Chronology – The Birth of a Nation (1915)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
I will admit that The Birth of a Nation always felt like a film that I was obligated to see, but not one that I particularly wanted to watch. This was a film that was considered racist even at the time it was made. A lot of the depictions of black characters in the film are unforgivable, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film otherwise.
The film is a Civil War story, following two families: the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Cameron family, whose sons have become friends. The first half of the film covers the war itself, which director D.W. Griffith sees as an atrocity. He emphasizes how much it tears families apart and pits friends against each other. Indeed, the Stonemans lose one son in the war while the Camerons lose two. After the war comes to a close, some Northern radicals, including the head of the Stoneman family, feel that the South should be punished for its impudence while others, led notably by Abraham Lincoln, feel that a gentle reconstruction is in order. The first part of the film closes with the assassination of President Lincoln, leaving the Camerons to ponder the fate of the South.
The second half of the film is more problematic. The South is faced with a harsh Reconstruction at the hands of the North. Blacks are portrayed as villains who are given too much power, which they don’t know how to wield. The tension comes to its zenith when one of the Cameron daughters jumps off a cliff to her death to avoid being raped by a black man. Eventually, blacks threaten some of the members of Cameron and Stoneman families, who are hiding in an isolated cabin while Stoneman’s right-hand man, a “mulatto” named Silas Lynch, tries to force Stoneman’s daughter to marry him. Eventually, the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the day, leading to a happy ending with a double wedding where a Cameron son marries a Stoneman daughter and a Stoneman son marries a Cameron daughter.
Obviously, the racist themes in this film need to be addressed, and I intend to do that. But, first, I think I should elaborate why this is considered a great film and what I enjoyed about it. First of all, and most importantly, this was the first major film. Before The Birth of a Nation, films were rarely longer than a few minutes, and feature-length films were extremely rare. This film was a huge success. Though there is some debate on this point, as box office receipts weren’t carefully counted in that era, it was the highest grossing film of all-time until surpassed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937. At over three hours, this film showed that Americans had as much patience for this new art form as they would have for a play or musical performance. In a sense, this is the film that created the movie industry.
In addition to the monetary achievements, The Birth of a Nation was also an achievement technically. Not all the techniques in the film were seen for the first time, but all of those elements had never been used in the same film before. And, to be fair, many of the techniques were created by Griffith himself in his earlier short films. Some of the techniques are so familiar today that it hard to appreciate how innovative they were at the time. For example, during the final sequence in the film where many of the characters were being besieged in their isolated cabin, the film cut to shots of the KKK furiously riding towards the cabin to save the day. Towards the end of the film, the film actually cut back and forth between several scenes to reflect simultaneous action. This technique is commonplace today, but it emphasized one of the things that film could do that a play could not. It would have been easy for film to develop into an art form that merely transposed drama to a new medium, but instead, it developed a life of its own.
Another technique that is commonplace today that is utilized in this film is the dramatic close-up. We look at a shot of a larger scene (today called an “establishing shot”) and then cut to a smaller part of the scene (a “close-up”) in order to emphasize a particular part of the action. I could not imagine what film would look like today without this basic tool.
Other techniques used in the film have less of an impact today’s movie industry. For example, Griffith used “tinting” to introduce some color into the film. Instead of seeing just black and white and gray, the entire screen would be in some shade of red. Griffith also used the “iris shot” in addition to the close-up. In order to focus the viewer on something particular, the rest of the screen would be blacked out and we would see what the director wanted to show us in a circle.
Some of the acting and the storyline might seem a bit simplistic by today’s standards. There is not a great deal of subtlety in this film. I think that Griffith understood the limitations of a silent film and wanted to present a story that was easy to follow. Considering the patience of the audience had never been tested in film before, there was no way to ascertain how much the viewer would be able to comprehend. To Griffith’s credit, the broad strokes work very well in this medium and eliminate the need for extensive title cards. We can follow the story simply from the visuals.
I have to admit that what I liked about the film was that it was exciting. Even if you do not feel as though you have the patience to sit through the entire film, if you are at all interested in the history of the medium, there are two famous sequences you should watch. First, there is a large-scale battle scene which dominates the first half of the film. With lots of smoke and gunfire, nothing like this had been seen on film before. Realizing that defeat is inevitable, one of the Cameron sons grabs a Confederate flag and charges the Union army, ultimately planting the flag directly into a Union cannon. The other notable scene is the assassination of President Lincoln. Both of these scenes were created by Griffith with an eye to historical accuracy. Griffith spent countless hours finding original source material from the Civil War to recreate these scenes with as much veracity as possible at the time. It is a shame that Griffith was not as rigorous while creating the second half of the film.
The power of the ending sequence cannot be denied, if you can get past the racism. Although the film is skewed to make the viewer root for the KKK, there are certain elements in the film that are timeless. Watching some evil force threaten bodily harm to a group of people we sympathize with is a now-familiar theme that works for a reason. The atrocities of war and its power to tear apart society is another familiar theme. Griffith may have even made a valid point about the destructiveness of Reconstruction on the South if he could have simply left race out of the equation.
As I keep mentioning that the racist depictions have to be ignored to enjoy the film, this seems an appropriate moment to discuss the film in that context. This is a film that was denounced by the NAACP at the time it was made. Many areas of the country refused to show the film. Griffith, raised in Kentucky, was unaware that the film was racist, but his ignorance does not absolve him from blame. Despite the achievements of the film, this is also a film that has wrought actual evil. The KKK all but disappeared by 1915 and The Birth of a Nation reinvigorated them.
Today, I would not forgive a film for subtle racism and yet The Birth of a Nation is part of our film canon despite its overt racism. I admit that I am unfamiliar with many films from the silent era, but I am sure there are better films that highlight many of the same technical achievements. After all, many of today’s blockbusters have made remarkable strides in special effects and computer animation, but I rarely see critics argue that they need to be added to the film canon. As for The Birth of a Nation, I would never recommend this film to a casual movie fan, and even to a true film buff, I would have reservations. Still, we cannot deny its importance to the history of film, and so this film will always be remembered, at least for its craftsmanship.
Up next in Film Chronology: Intolerance