Birth of a Nation (1915) The Mighty Spectacle

Birth of a Nation (1915) turned ninety-five years old this past March.  For many there is no celebration in that.  For some there is pause, considerable consternation and ultimately a resounding sigh of sadness that such an undeniably momentous event in cinema history is riddled by deplorable, troubling themes that erode the accomplishment of the first American feature-length film.  Prior to that films with generally much shorter, often referred to as one- and two-reelers.  There is little grace in knowing that the filmmaker, David Llewelyn Wark “D.W.” Griffith, a Kentucky-born son of a Confederate officer struggled in the years after the film appeared in March of 1915 or that six years later he made edits to the original and ultimately removed references to the KKK in deference to the NAACP and critics.  There is hardly salve for the wounds his film opened and no joy in knowing he never made another film after 1924 and subsequently died near penniless in 1948.  One can hardly envision the man, now mired in myth and legend, a tangled and broken visionary lost in controversy and reckless abandon over the act of creation without consideration for the consequences of what he created.  Michael Elliott from Louisville, KY writes on IMDB after watching the documentary film D.W. Griffith: Father of Film(1993), “Griffith would stop at nothing to get the perfect scenes on film and it didn’t matter what happened afterwards as he put no thought into it”.  Perhaps Mr. Griffith was blinded by his passion, no visible crime in this day and age of $200 million dollar passion plays, or swayed by prevailing racism if not an inherent racist philosophy before racism was even the concept we know it as today or the prodigy of decades of prejudice and separatism.  Maybe it was the turmoil of “the time” as some have written; opposing forces enraged by a changing political landscape that was already poised ready for upheaval, or maybe Griffith just should have thought more about what came after a film of such caustic content and the lasting consequences of indiscretion that burn so very brightly to this day.

Most people are not aware that Griffith produced more than 450 silent movies in the years leading up to Birth of a Nation, that his experimentation with new and developing film techniques, such as cross-cutting between different scenes to build suspense, close-ups to reveal and connect with the audience the emotional experiences of the characters, and moving the camera would become standards of modern filmmaking.  Griffith has been called the Father of film to some chagrin, a pioneer by others or at best an opportunist capitalizing on the inventions of others; yet such accolades fall quickly to the wayside in contrast to the documented widespread outcry against the pervasive stereotyping and caricature of black people who were often portrayed as menacing, lazy, and ignorant in “Birth”.  The Center for History and New Media points out historian Thomas Cripp’s characterization of The Birth of a Nation as “at once a major stride for cinema and a sacrifice of black humanity to the cause of racism.”  For most, Griffith’s accomplishments are inconsequential in light of the legacy of his most successful and yet most profoundly troubling cinematic achievement.  Most are unaware that he was instrumental in the idea of creating a film industry on the West Coast and consequently co-founded film studio United Artists with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin that would later lay the groundwork for what would become Hollywood.

What is clear is that Birth of a Nation polarized opinions, continues to do so,  and ignites debate between critics and enthusiasts, human rights organizations, the NAACP, film enthusiasts and filmmakers who continue to explore the relevance of a film that’s lasting legacy reflects on the not so distant past nearly a century after it was made.

Brannavan Gnanalingam at posits that, “Birth of a Nation highlights the artificial nature of trying to separate out form and content – arguably, a process that has been expedient in justifying the film’s inclusion in the pantheon of great movies.  But it also questions the role of the audience in interpreting a text and how much one’s social background affects the continuing legacy of art.”  Brannavan makes the point that any value derived from the film is countered by the immense and indefensible racist ideology and as such the film does not deserve to be heralded as a work of art or a film of merit.  He further contends that “Birth” intentionally exploited natural fears and prejudice toward blacks and through the very inextricable link of form and content, audience reactions were simultaneously heightened and exploited both by what was being photographed and how it was being photographed according to preconceived and specific racist beliefs.  But this principle is indeed the very technical achievement that is lauded, the ability to emotionally and psychologically affect the audience through cinematography, editing, storytelling, and themes.  These are fundamental principles of cinematic language and regardless of how they were first developed cannot be devalued at the cost of how they were first employed.  Therefore any argument that claims once form and content are married they consequently have the power to negate one another is merely unsustainable.  I would argue that form and content are indeed separable and however heinous and despicable the content, the form must not be invalidated because of a myriad of reasons why we dislike everything else about the product of their employ.

Brannavan Gnanalingam goes on to ask the question, “Can art be considered worthy if it has ideas that are repugnant to an audience member?”

matchstickATLI don’t believe the consideration of value or worthiness is a formula that can be applied liberally to all art but rather lies in the aesthetic experience of the individual viewer – as I’ve explored in this article “achieving an aesthetic experience of art”.  In exploration of his own question, Brannavan appropriately points out that the role of subjectivity, taste, and a viewer’s background, such as education, culture, and personal ideologies, are direct influences on their viewing experience and therefore directly influences their reaction – possibly derailing subjectivity.  This also means that each viewer will ultimately have a unique and specific experience they may or may not share with others even when those others are intimate, friends or family.

I think a thorough review of Birth of a Nation, the technological accomplishments, the era, and the filmmaker himself is the only meaningful way to approach and discuss the subject of race in cinema.  I find it irresponsible and dismissive to simply bat away a film or filmmaker, a piece of art or viewpoint on the basis of distastefulness, abhorrent themes, or personal opinion – though we all do this every day of our lives.  A recent example is my reaction to a trailer for an upcoming film by German filmmaker Uwe Boll called Auschwitz.  To say that I was appalled would only scratch the surface (please see my review/reaction to the trailer here:

Yet at the same time is Bolls’ film any different from Griffith’s in the use of theme and agenda, in the manner in which he brutally aggrandized and exploits the explicit horrors of the atrocities perpetrated in the Nazi concentration camps?  Of course it is impossible to draw any meaningful comparison without first screening Boll’s film but the important critical and theoretical considerations seem to me to be something that can be used to cross decades, genre, and subject.  Deciding that a film like “Birth” is bad simply because it contains themes and imagery you find distasteful undermines your credibility and makes it impossible to discuss at any great depth.  While it is indeed likely that Griffith had used many of the techniques employed in “Birth” in prior projects and in addition Italian filmmakers had already made epic films is of little consequence.  What matters here is not so much the newness of the techniques but the manner by which Griffith brought all of them together to make “Birth”.  As far as those who have championed the film in recent times, Mr. Ebert for one, I uphold the belief that as a film critic our fundamental task is to perform just such surgery – the extrication of components of a film as a way to access the artistic merit and public appeal, to analyze and evaluate films individually and collectively then discuss them at great lengths.

Originally published November 14th, 2010. 
Edited August 03, 2013
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About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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7 Responses to Birth of a Nation (1915) The Mighty Spectacle

  1. Marshall says:

    This is really interesting. I’ve always been curious to see this movie, particularly since my history teacher made a huge point in U.S. History last year to point out that this movie could be the most influential in American history. Good on you for daring to take a look!

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks Marshall! Understandably one of the most challenging films, historically. I think frequently the emotional reaction to the subject matter and overt racist ideology makes it a difficult film to approach from a purely aesthetic and artistic viewpoint. But I stand behind my belief that we should not only embrace the film from a historical and cinematic perspective but also discuss it openly including the challenges of theme, race, and the turmoil of that era in the not so distant past.

      I’d also like to point out another film that while difficult to watch, is similarly multi-dimensional and important both as an artistic expression but one which carries a very significant message – The Stoning of Soraya M. and my review of it

  2. Rodney says:

    Really enjoyed this article Rory, a great dissection of a vastly misunderstood film. I agree that film, as art, should be at least appreciated, if is isn’t enjoyed due to whatever reasons society dictates, as a work of art. While today the themes Birth Of A Nation might appal us, the modern viewer should see this film as a capsule of its time – a product of a time when people were racist, bigoted and so on.
    Perhaps instead of people trying to modify or ban the film for content reasons, it should be shown as an example of what NOT to do/be like. Much like films such as Schindler’s List or The Killing Fields, Birth Of A Nation could serve as a warning on how bad humanity has been, and point us towards a more enlightened, less destructive way of thinking.
    Perhaps by watching this film (among others) and understanding what it was saying and why, we can learn a little more about ourselves and try to be better people.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks Rodney. I must admit with all the racial tensions here in the Bay Area in California I waited to post this one. It was one of those random moments that started with something else and I came across the article I quoted and served as inspiration and really had an opinion about it. My most essential argument (as you point out) was exactly the necessity to learn from art as art examines us, as art becomes a vehicle to the past and how it along with society evolves or doesn’t evolve and through the medium of film we can learn not only about where we were but the technology we used and continue to use today. Cinema is a powerful force if for no other reason than it involves obscene amounts of money – both spending it and earning it. It is sometimes mind numbing to imagine a $200 million dollar film that take another $100 million dollars to advertise that ultimately generates over a billion dollars in box office receipts.

      A good point about the educational value of Birth. I think where Birth fails in comparison to those other films in that the life lesson, the innate quality of the message is so muddied by what is now perceived as overtly racist is that it becomes unclear if anyone outside of the classroom would be emotionally, psychologically, or willing to discuss the film as a “film” rather than a racist agitprop. It’s how I described ( I think I used this example) studying the bible as literature in undergraduate school – there simply was no reaching the devout Christians in class because they could not separate their belief from the text and when we attempted to dissect the narrative, to discuss the manner in which the parable or gospel was written we ended up in an argument about faith rather than context, clarity, meaning, etc. We’ve watched parts of this film in my film studies classes but to be honest it was so deathly quiet in the class I was afraid the room was going to implode.

      I agree, I think there is a lot of value in this film as a historical document of the era, as a way to explore racial themes and prejudiced propaganda as employed in early cinema but what I would want people to come away with more is the appreciation of the earliest technological advances in cinema and how those experiments became the bedrock for modern cinema today. It’s a tough sell but a worthy one.

  3. Klaus says:

    This is a very thoughtful and interesting article. I agree that it is possible to separate Griffith’s racist views from the substantial technical achievements in Birth, and that he certainly deserves the credit for his role in creating the form and grammar of modern film.

    Notwithstanding his technical achievements, and the fact that he might also be considered the father of the propaganda film and the creator of racial stereotypes in Hollywood, I would also argue that technical advancement does not necessarily make a good film.

    I think a rather good analogy of this point is Avatar – a film shamefully bereft of originality, wholly clichéd, not to mention, too long – but one which is heralded as technically brilliant and wildly popular.

    In this respect, I am of the personal opinion that Birth of a Nation and a number of other Griffith “classic” feature films are not very good films, and suffer from over direction and some of the worst “stage” performances in early film. Granted, there were few naturalistic performance in silent film in the early years, but Griffith never really seemed to advance much past his ability to produce film with “technical achievements” – which eventually caught up to him at the box office.

    In view of his formulaic approach to melodrama, and his lack of ability to change with the times, one might wonder how such a “revolutionary” film maker, who helped start one of the most influential Hollywood studios could simply run out of ideas. This suggests to me, that despite his technical work, his achievements have long been over credited.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks for your thoughts! Indeed, a very complicated subject involving a highly controversial film and filmmaker. I think perspective has been lost on the significance of the work especially in light of so many new technological advances that seem to overshadow the early days of filmmaking and storytelling. Griffith accomplished more than I think most give him credit for but at least he remains discussed and his work remains to stir interest, albeit often mostly criticism and controversy.

      I agree that technique and technology definitely do not form the basis for a good film and often (as with the case of the 3D craze) can hinder rather than help a story. I think what is most relevant about Griffith’s early work, Birth in particular, is not so much what he invented but also what en incorporated in new and inventive ways that had either not been done before or not with the success in which he deployed them.

      Good analogy with Avatar, a film that did employ new, ground breaking technology but it was the combination of this with the story, character and themes that reached across a broad spectrum of the movie going public that made it the success it has become.

      I’m not sure I’d go so far as agree with you that Griffith’s early films, Birth in particular, are not very good based solely on opinion. I think that was precisely what I was getting at in my original article that it is irrelevant whether we liked or disliked the film as a basis for whether or not the film stands as an accomplishment of that era and an achievement that had not been fully realized prior. Poor acting, direction, etc., are simply elements by which a film is constructed by not necessarily elements by which a film stands solely on whether or not it is significant. I agree that there are plenty of things ‘wrong’ with “Birth” but again none of these things alone justify the film and filmmakers rightful place in cinema history. Furthermore, much akin to the canon of literature as to what is considered important and/or necessary works of study, I am all for adding contemporary works but completely opposed to removing those already lauded as significant works worthy of study. Replacement or exclusion is not a basis for study but rather an unwillingness to consider the entirety of an area of study and that is what I believed I was most interested in pointing out in my original article.

      I’m glad to exchange thoughts with you. And as far as filmmakers running out of ideas, well, I think we could probably find any number of contemporaries who suffer the same dilemma, both those in front of and behind the camera.

  4. Pingback: Malcolm X (2012) Blu-ray | Above the Line

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