The Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith)

!! CAUTION !!

Everything you and I have been told about Birth of a Nation — the landmark, world-expanding, artform-changing Civil War epic that casts the KKK in a heroic light — being disgustingly racist and unforgivably hateful is true. Everything we’ve been told about Birth of a Nation being tirelessly innovative and exciting is also true… but, for the average modern viewer, entirely irrelevant. To me, it remains painful to look at, and infuriating. And it’s not nearly the great piece of storytelling that defenders imply — its revisionist history is inherently lopsided and stupid, and it’s a chore to watch except for the captivating battle scenes and the Lincoln assassination sequence (and, admittedly, Lillian Gish’s unsurprisingly gripping if brief performance).

Donald Bogle has written convincingly that D.W. Griffith was a mass of uncomfortable contradictions, and this is played out in a simple glimpse of his filmography. His elegant, homey short Biograph pictures often display an infectious charm and pluck, and his features from Intolerance to Orphans of the Storm and beyond have a majesty that was his and his alone in early Hollywood, and would remain rare in his wake. After the ugliness and high-water marks of his two best-known films, he would ultimately be among the first filmmakers to cast interracial romance in a positive light in Broken Blossoms, and near the end of his career he made a loving biopic of Abraham Lincoln. But he always remained the son of a Confederate soldier, and his work is generally inseparable from his antiquated, bigoted ideology — no matter how professional a man he is recorded to have been, and no matter how much of an innovator he was.

The director’s internal confusion manifests itself throughout Birth of a Nation, a film constantly spoken of and referred to but seldom seen by the modern generation of film buffs. This is a movie that preaches about the virtues of peace and understanding while taking a visceral thrill in its visualization of a pack of Ku Klux Klan brutes murdering a group of black activists — and setting that up as the means to achieve peace, while it can’t seem to imagine how anyone thought the big mean Civil War would help anything. He depicts blacks as subhuman animals who destroy the southern half of the country in the years following the war, but throws in a bewildering disclaimer that this is “not meant to reflect on any race of today.” He presents an infuriatingly idealized South in the first half and an overblown Reconstruction in the second. He portrays Lincoln as a hero in the (admittedly sometimes very exciting) portions involving the major events of the war but thinks nothing of undermining everything Lincoln believed in, died for, etc.

I’m well aware that Griffith grew up with the mythologies as depicted in this movie — the notion of the Old South as an idyllic and peaceful utopia, the idea of the Civil War as a vicious fight for core values (much is made in the film of “the death of state sovereignity”), the ridiculous portrait of slavery as a happy and simple existence, and the comically pathetic malformations of the banjo-dancin’ watermelon-munchin’ marble-mouthed “Negroes.” A lot of people in the South, frankly, still grow up with some if not all of these images. No one knew better than Griffith how much this region is shaped by the Civil War — something that’s still true now and certainly was true in 1915, only fifty years after it ended. He sprang from a Confederate bloodline and, so it’s said, had “no idea” that he had put forth racist ideas in this movie. I would say that’s his problem, not ours. Racism is racism. The movie actually offers a convenient counterpoint: I know that the upheaval of slavery was an unwanted lifestyle change for a lot of people, but that’s not a good reason to keep the machine going. Similarly, being raised with simple-minded hatred all around is not an excuse for one’s own naivete.

Hey, I’m descended from Civil War people too. I have eight Confederate soldiers in my ancestry; my great x 4 grandfather, a fireman, handed Wilmington over to the Union in 1865. These bloodlines are all but meaningless as anything but cute trivia — and as the barometer for how close we remain to the oppression that still leads directly down to the disenfranchisement of modern Americans — and the extent to which they’re used as an excuse today to defend some kind of perverse heritage is ridiculous, especially since so many descendents of Confederate fighters are taking the side not of their ancestors but of the stubborn rich idiots who forced the South into its rotten situation. This is one of the major problems with Griffith’s picture of how the Civil War came about. I’m all for an antiwar statement, and I agree that every war, including the Civil War, is a waste of human life. It was a necessary war, but still a waste. Griffith argues that it was the “northern aggression” that brought about this savagery, apparently blind to the point that the blame rests squarely neither on Lincoln for declaring war or on black people for being shipped here against their will. The people who died in the name of slavery, naturally, were not the wealthy plantation owners who cared about it, who never would have dreamed of entering the battlefield. Of course they and their entire communities rallied around their flag; this kind of nationalistic short-sightedness happens every time anyone decides to start a war. (Remember in Gone with the Wind, when everyone cheers the start of the fighting?)

Griffith’s loaded, laughably inaccurate and often paranoid portrait of events is colored not just by his historical ignorance but by the way he uses horribly hokey sentimentality (the little girl named as “the spirit of the South” touching the flag of the Confederacy in awe) as a means of grossly simplistic manipulation. Not only is it disgusting to see film used in this fashion today in any context, not even just in this disturbing fashion, it renders the movie even less capable of illuminating anything at all. All the more damaging is his use of political cartoons (!) from the Reconstruction era as source and reference material, which may have been acceptable had he been making a satire, but it’s all too clear throughout the picture that it is thoroughly lacking in irony: It’s bad enough to watch people — in blackface — get mauled and dragged and murdered. It’s bad enough to witness the sickening scene in which a girl jumps off a cliff to avoid being raped by a black man, who’s depicted as a slobbering ape (and is of course portrayed as such by a white actor). The outright hatred really comes through in title cards, one of which has dialogue about the importance of preserving the “Aryan race” (no wonder they sell copies of this at gun shows) and several of which feature the endlessly comical and just barely comprehensible Griffith interpretation of “negro-speak,” with lots of apostrophes and a systematically empty-headed notion of “ethnic” communication, with phrases like “sho’ nuff,” and most notably a black woman calling a northern black man “nigger trash.” Many films I love from Dumbo to Black Narcissus are or can be viewed as racist, but seeing Birth of a Nation puts into harsh light the difference between unconscious condecension and/or antiquity, and outright fear and aggression from those with power and privilege. These stereotypes are the function of genuine hatred.

I seriously don’t have a negative viewpoint of Griffith; I can’t really, as it’s obvious that so much in film technique dates back to his work. And I think some of his other work is outstanding and that even this movie has breathtaking moments. I strongly disagree with the Academy’s removal of his name from their lifetime achievement award. That kind of carefully inoffensive idiocy is as damaging as the political content of the movie here. But my god, it really is a shocking film. And there are a lot of reasons why there’s no excuse for that.

No one’s ever going to question Griffith’s technical wizardry; his compositions frequently reflect a stunning level of craft and intellect. But how can anyone really love this movie, I wonder? It is #44 on the original AFI Top 100 (above Jaws, All Quiet on the Western Front, Fantasia, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Network, City Lights, The Apartment, and Bringing Up Baby), it was inducted to the National Film Registry five years before Rear Window was given the same honor, it is listed as one of Leonard Maltin’s “100 Must See Films of the 20th Century,” the super-intellectual A-List compilation includes it among its classic 100, the Village Voice astonishingly ranked it as the fourteenth greatest movie of the century (above The Wizard of Oz, M, Metropolis, Barry Lyndon, The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, and Notorious). It’s invariably considered one of the greatest silent films and is routinely mentioned far ahead of masterworks like The Wind, The Crowd, and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Why? Because, it’s said, you’re just not paying enough attention to the technique. You’re not looking past the inherent stupidity of the story and the racism, you’re not taking the time to appreciate the epic sweep, remarkable mobile shots and camerawork (by G.W. Bitzer), the brilliant editing, the breathtaking feats of the battle sequences; you’re not putting yourself in the context of the times, you’re judging it by its message and plot. All the mentioned virtues are indeed quite grand and alarming, and I am a champion of every kind of cultural literacy and recommend that everyone who really is interested in film history see Birth of a Nation. But if one cannot judge a film harshly by its message and plot, what exactly can one judge it by?

I put the oft-repeated notation about “context of the times” in bold because of all the lame excuses frequently pulled out by film historians, this is surely the most grating. I have yet to see any reason to change my opinion that if a movie can only be appreciated if one puts him/herself in the context of the era it was made, that movie is now a failure. Those who make the “look past the racism and just absorb yourself in the exciting narrative” argument fail to convince me — again, there’s racist art I grudgingly respect or even love (Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs springs to mind) and art with racist overtones I can forgive as reflecting its time (like say, nearly every Hollywood film from the ’10s to the ’60s if not longer), but ‘Birth’ really has nothing going for it. It’s excessive, self-regarding and clumsy as a film, and like any piece of recruitment propaganda (don’t say this is unfair; the KKK owes its renewed existence to this film) it’s finally empty and flagrantly unsophisticated. I’m not saying it should be dismissed or that we should get rid of it, I’m saying it’s a museum piece, not an enriching art or entertainment. It can educate us about the world it documents, the viewpoint it puts forward, but as a film, I can’t sense its real value to the people of today.

But more to the point, the “context” argument really doesn’t work for Birth of a Nation, because its messages were antiquated even in 1915. (We’lnl put aside for the moment that race-derived hatred was antiquated as soon as people of different races existed.) The movie was protested, attacked, even banned in a few places, with is what set Griffith off — like an embittered caller to a right-wing radio show — to make Intolerance. It partially sparked the birth of a miniature black film industry, as a means of creating alternative images. The movie was disturbing then, just as it is now. It was inexcusable then, as it is now.

While we’re at it, I’m dubious on how many things Birth of a Nation actually pioneered that are, well, things we should be thankful for. Don’t we have it to blame for all the florid, overlong, pretentious Hollywood “epics”? For the fact that too many damn films go on too damn long? Yeah, Griffith can tentatively be regarded as having invented montage and tracking shots and telegraphed action and screen acting as we know it, but he was always better for five minutes than three hours. (The AFI’s now-official Birth surrogate, Intolerance, feels just as much like an antique to me.) It’s actually more fun and inspiring to read William Everson’s descriptions of how different Birth was than longer films that came before it than it is to actually watch the movie.

Some people say that the film can be appreciated as a skillful piece of propaganda. If someone from the Turner Diaries cult made this today, though, and made it with even greater technical brilliance and innovation than Griffith did, I have my doubts that they would be comfortable praising it or that they would even want to. We’d never excuse a film now that claimed a hate group “took back” America and then panderingly superimposed flags and crosses over the action, so why must we favor this one because it “innovated”? That’s a slur on all the other great movies of the silent period that haven’t dated. To watch a film simply because it did certain things for the first time or has nice shots in it is to view it as a technical museum piece, not as a work of art. (That’s for me, at least; I’d be remiss not to note that I accept that other non-Klan members are fully likely to still wring intense pleasure out of the film, which I mention because I’m so consistently appalled and upset when people make the very same argument I’m making about Citizen Kane which to me is an emotional and sweeping and personal experience completely unrelated to its technical prowess.)

I must admit that I was emotionally affected by Birth of a Nation in one sense, aside from the powerful recoiling initiated by the racism: I laughed a lot, more than I probably should have. The scene with the blackfaced beast chasing Lillian Gish is inevitably amusing. This may sound insensitive, but if you cannot laugh at this kind of senselessness, what the hell can you do with it? I’d say dismissing it as the tomfoolery of short-sighted fools is the only worthwhile response. In a way, you have to laugh at it. Otherwise, in some sense it wins. By the time you reach the KKK massacre at the climax, you are too numbed by the prior two hours to be really shocked by anything, but just when you don’t think the movie can get any more offensive, they end it with an image of Jesus. I really can’t wait to tape over this.

I’m thrilled that Turner Classic Movies showed this “classic” at 8:00pm one night recently as part of their excellent retrospective series on the depiction of race in Hollywood. It’s been said that if more people actually read the Bible, there would be more atheists. In the same sense, I want Birth of a Nation to be around forever, as a reminder and as an artifact. I want as many people as possible to see it. I want people to know that you don’t have to think something is a classic because the AFI tells you it is, I want people to know they can decide for themselves what is good and what is bad. And I can’t think of any better way to prove it than to show them Birth of a Nation. And I hope that someday, it won’t be held up as the monument of anything except a few good montage techniques and an example of a lot of mercifully extinct values. I hope it won’t be considered The First Great Hollywood Film, because it’s not Great anything.

“There was a movie made in Pakistan, in the years just after the fatwa, which portrayed me as a murderer, a sadist, a drunkard, a person wearing an unfortunate range of safari suits. It was about me being persued and assassinated by the forces of fundamentalism. When it came to England, it was denied a certificate; the British Board of Film Classification saw that it was obviously defamatory. I didn’t want to be defended in a free speech fight by an act of censorship. I wrote to the BBFC, saying I was waving my rights to legal recourse and would they please give the film a certificate. The film got the certificate, and the producers booked a large cinema in Bedford, which has the largest Muslim population [in Britain] and, indeed, was where they burned The Satanic Verses. Well, nobody went. Because nobody wants to see a rotten movie.” – Salman Rushdie

[Posted in 2006 at my old venue, where it was my favorite film review I wrote, at least until Singin’ in the Rain or Sunrise. I only slightly clarified and added a few things this time but it’s essentially the same as it was then.]

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