|Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wives.|
The Birth of a Nation
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, hundreds upon thousands of extras
I will tell you this from the outset: I have precious little original content to say about The Birth of a Nation. My opinion of this film is fairly similar to that of pretty much everyone else. You won’t be gleaning anything terribly new here.
So… let’s get this started, shall we?
The Birth of a Nation is about arguably the most violent and disruptive of decades in American history, the 1860s. We get an introduction to two families – the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North – right before the American Civil War breaks out. The first third or so deals with the war, then later we see Lincoln’s assassination. The final portion of the film deals with the South after the war, about rebuilding and reconstruction, and, in what is so ridiculously troubling, about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
I’ll start with the good, because there is good to say about this film. The Birth of a Nation is often credited with “inventing the language of film,” and it would be difficult to argue with this statement. I’ve seen a few films made prior to this, and I’ve seen another film from the same year as this (Les Vampires). D.W. Griffith did not invent the concept of the “epic film,” (Les Vampires is even longer than Nation’s three hour running time), but he certainly took the concept of film to a much higher level. Unlike Les Vampires, which feels like a filmed play, Nation has crosscuts, close-ups, intercutting, flashbacks, and even a bit of a moving camera. Griffith defines what makes a movie different from a play with The Birth of a Nation. While this might not be apparent to a thoroughly modern movie-goer, it’s apparent by watching the other films of the 1910s that Nation was a game-changer. The “language of film” gets a vocabulary lesson.
Why, oh why were such inventive film techniques brought to us through such a stomach-churning story? The first hour, the one that focuses mostly on the Civil War, is fine enough, establishing many classic war movie tropes in one go. Even the fact that Griffith tells the story from the vantage point of the South (his father was an officer in the Confederate Army), sympathizing them while brutalizing the North, is fine. But once the Civil War ends we are treated to some of the most ludicrous racial stereotyping nonsense, so horrible that I have trouble getting through it. The black characters in the film (most of whom were played by white actors in blackface) are nearly all portrayed as lascivious, lawless, power-hungry beasts who will beat the white men into submission while marrying all the white women. And the only possible way the white race can save itself? The Ku Klux Klan. Don’t worry, white women, the KKK will save you!
I don’t even…
I rewatched most of this film in order to write this review, even though I knew what I wanted to say. I admit, I had forgotten just how archetypal the Civil War sequence is, how influential it was on war films, and that’s worth noting. Griffith portrays the jubilation of the South heading off to war, the chaotic frenzy of the battlefield, followed by the despair of returning home to a ruined homeland, all formidably portrayed. While All Quiet on the Western Front certainly portrays the disillusionment with war with greater sophistication, there is a similar sense here. So I am glad that in watching this again, I remembered this portion of the film I had forgotten.
But then the film gets silly and the racial absurdities become too many to name, and I feel my stomach literally turning over. And then our “hero” (Walthall) gets “inspired” to invent the KKK, and my patience is significantly shortened. I just can’t. Knowing how much intolerance and bigotry this particular organization has inflicted in the last century in America, how much violence and hatred it has instilled, how its effects are undoubtedly still felt in some areas of the American South, I can’t see them as any type of hero. Griffith claims to have been blind to what he was doing, and he was, apparently, legitimately surprised when people took issue with his portrayal of race relations. I just don’t get it. How could he not know what he was doing?
I had to stop watching. I couldn’t make it through the final half hour. I was impatient, disturbed, and frustrated. I was NOT going to watch the KKK save the day. I couldn’t.
The Birth of a Nation is troubling. It advanced the art of filmmaking by light years, but it did so by telling an utterly reprehensible story. I would never recommend anyone see this unless they needed to for a class or if you’re a list completist. I get no sense of pleasure from watching this movie. I respect what Griffith did in terms of filmmaking techniques, but after that, this one gets a resounding “NO” from me.
Arbitrary Rating: 3/10. It scrapes a few points for technical merit.