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 werewolf.co.nz 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?”
I 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: https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/ewe-bolls-film-auschwitz-2011/
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
- The staggering modernity of “Intolerance” (somecamerunning.typepad.com)
- “Magnificent, Fascinating & Appalling”: The Birth Of A Nation Revisited (thequietus.com)
- The Birth of a Nation (15) | Close-Up Film DVD Review (close-upfilm.com)
- The Birth of a Nation: a gripping masterpiece … and a stain on history (oddonion.com)