Disunited States: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation (1915) – Blu-ray review
Milestone or millstone? After 100 years, perhaps it’s time to stop giving Griffith’s racist tract a free pass on account of his pioneering talent.
The Birth Of A Nation
(D.W. Griffith, 1915)
When I was at university in Sheffield in the mid-1990s, the cinema society attempted a season to celebrate the centenary of cinema by showing a classic from every decade. The film chosen for the 1910s was The Birth Of A Nation, and the choice aroused such passions that protestors successfully got the screening banned. It’s taken me nearly two decades to finally catch up with the film, thanks to a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release, and it hasn’t lost its ability to inspire genuine anger.
Griffith’s film is both a milestone of cinema and its greatest millstone. On the one hand, it is heralded by critics for inventing dozens of now-commonplace techniques, and largely creating the rules of grammar by which we understand on-screen action and narrative. On the flipside, it is also hideously, undeniably racist, so racist that even in 1915 its problematic status was clear to many, if not (apparently) the filmmaker responsible.
For nearly one hundred years, lovers of cinemas have wrestled with the dilemma – it is both a ‘must watch’ and an object to be shunned. The clash is written into the film, whose two halves can more or less be regarded separately. In the first, Griffith invented cinema as we understand it; in the second, he used his innovations to tell a reprehensible tale.
It is stagy and old-fashioned from the start, but also kinetic in its urgency and hunger for story. Griffith follows two families – one from the North, the other from the South – who are friends and hopeful lovers, only to face each other across the battlefield come the Civil War. It’s a sterling melodrama, contrived in its mix of historical realism and soap-operatics (Lincoln becomes a supporting player in his own story, with his assassination providing the expertly crafted climax of the first part) but never less than watchable.
Griffith freely cuts between the two families, establishing the dynamic of cross-cutting and parallel action that permits a scope and scale between the standard one- or two-reelers. And then he transfers those techniques to battle sequences where he can jump to a detail and then back out to an extraordinary panorama of miles-wide action, beautifully lit in smoke-framed compositions of bustling activity. Yes, it eventually suffers from the pedantry of historical re-enactment as Griffith insists on giving the film equivalent of a drum solo to every part of the military (the artillery, the mortars, yawn), yet it still has a clarity and vigour that today’s fast-cut merchants can learn from.
And then… war is over and we’re into the Reconstruction: an aptly named period, given that the story’s author Thomas Dixon seemed hell-bent on reconstructing reality. The facts of the era are shuffled into a panicky diatribe against uppity Negros, led by a power-crazed mulatto politician who has duped a well-meaning politician into turning the whites into an oppressed minority. There’s nothing for it for the heroes to form the Ku Klux Klan and restore order.
If that paragraph sounds repellent, that’s nothing compared to actually seeing the results on-screen. Conceived entirely on the basis that the war was the blacks’ fault and that white America should stick together, the story presents freed slaves as would-be rapists and feckless idiots; granted political power, they sit around drinking and eating and putting their bare feet onto the desk. White actors in blackface gurn, grimace and goggle their eyes at delicate flower Lillian Gish, while intertitles provide extensive propaganda for the KKK.
It all ends with Griffith perfecting his action techniques, with a stirring, storming multiple-rescue sequence in which the blacks are positioned with all of the menace (and none of the subtext) that Romero gave the zombies in Night Of The Living Dead. The punchline to the film shows “the next election,” when the blacks are discouraged from casting their ballots by gun-wielding Klansmen: a scene played, sickeningly, for laughs.
According to Griffith – an old-school Southerner raised in the shadow of the war – he wasn’t aware that any of this was offensive, and he’s been given a sympathetic ear over the years for three reasons. Firstly, it’s probably true that he was naive rather than malicious in his ideology. Secondly, he quickly made steps to atone for the racism by making Intolerance. Thirdly – well, connoisseurs of cinema have always been able to justify bad behaviour when it’s practised by a talented artist. Just ask Roman Polanski.
The problem with The Birth Of A Nation lies in its historical importance – and the tendency of film critics to prefer the wow factor of technique to the ambiguities of meaning: the same standard that allows rape-revenge movies to be graded on merit of their style. It’s a dangerous game to play, because 100 years later The Birth Of A Nation is still part of the canon and deemed worthy of huge attention.
But ask yourself this: even in the wake of The Artist and the revival of interest in silent cinema, even granted the still inspirational techniques of Griffith’s film, is this something you’d show to a casual moviegoer? Absolutely not: it exists solely as an item of academic interest, to be viewed with scholarly detachment, and that risks obscuring how inflammatory and unpleasant this is to watch. Perhaps the occasional ban is a good wake-up call not to let this go unchallenged as a classic.