The Birth Of A Nation—A Deeply Flawed, Would-Be Masterpiece
Not entirely by coincidence, my series on the early silent era has arrived at the year 1915 on the day of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. What better time then to review the most notorious Civil War film in history, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which premiered in the United States on February 8, 1915.
The Birth of a Nation was the most celebrated film of its era. Critics gushed in their praise, audiences gladly lined up to pay $2 to see it at a time when the average ticket cost a nickel, and when it played at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was moved to comment, "It was like writing history with lightning."
It was the top grossing film of the silent era, with estimates of its box office take ranging from $10 million to $16 million during its initial run, more than twice that of any other silent film. With its budget of $250,000, The Birth of a Nation still ranks as one of the twenty most profitable films in history.
It's also, in my opinion, the most controversial movie ever made. The film includes sequences—for example, Ku Klux Klansmen riding to the rescue of white women being raped by actors wearing blackface—that are so grotesque in their depictions of race and their distortions of history that you can't believe that you are seeing them. In 1915, its exhibition sparked protests in cities across the nation. Riots broke out in Boston and Philadelphia, and it was banned outright in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. After allowing the film's premiere in Los Angeles, city leaders banned it there as well. And even where it did play, Griffith was forced to make cuts to get the film past local censors.
The reaction so stung Griffith, he spent the rest of his life apologizing, both through his films and in private.
While films such as Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ generated controversy at the time of their release, can you imagine anyone turning out to protest them a hundred years from now? Yet nearly a hundred years after its release, The Birth of a Nation still generates controversy. In 2000 and 2004, plans to show the film were cancelled after complaints, and as recently as last year in Rome, New York, the film's exhibition drew a crowd of protesters that included the city's mayor.
Let's Pretend—For A Moment
Reviewing The Birth of a Nation is never an easy task and I suspect many film critics and historians secretly (and not so secretly) wish they could just skip right over it and talk about something else. The film's reputation as being virulently racist is well deserved; and its story and its views on race are inextricably linked—every character on the screen is defined by their race and their attitudes about race and most are motivated by racial animus. So to review the movie without reviewing its racism and its distortions of history—always touchy subjects—is impossible
I won't shirk my duty, I promise, but nevertheless, let's pretend, for a moment, that we're visitors from another planet, and that issues of race and history are lost on us.
The Birth of a Nation tells the story of two families, one Northern, the other Southern, torn apart by war and its aftermath; and of a nation torn apart by the "peculiar institution," slavery. Beginning in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln and running through the end of post-war Reconstruction (1865-1877), the movie covers the major events of the era—the South's secession from the Union, the resulting civil war, the emancipation of the slaves, the assassination of Lincoln, the chaotic post-war attempts to ensure the civil rights of newly-freed slaves, and finally, the white backlash that led to a century of segregation.
In the foreground of all this history is a simple love triangle involving an abolitionist senator's daughter (Lillian Gish); the senator's protegee, a free black (George Siegmann in blackface) who will eventually be named lieutenant governor of an unnamed Southern state; and a former Confederate officer (Henry Walthall) who remains unreconciled to the South's defeat. As the film builds to a climax, the senator's daughter rejects the black politician's proposal of marriage, he reacts by unleashing his wrath on whites everywhere, and the Confederate officer forms the Ku Klux Klan and rides to the rescue.
The movie is split into two halves—war and peace—and when it focuses on the former, it excels. The battle scenes play like Matthew Brady's photographs brought to life and those sequences must have seemed like a time machine to audiences in 1915. Indeed, they still rank high on a short list of well-staged combat scenes.
Also worthy of high praise is Griffith's staging of Lincoln's assassination, as well as the film's sets, cinematography, costumes and film editing, all unsurpassed in their day.
The problem with the film lies in its second half, the depiction of the post-war peace. Not only is it racist and an unforgivable distortion of history—a point we'll get to in a moment—it's also essentially ludicrous, because as the film presents it, the fate of the entire post-war South, indeed, the nation, pivots on the rival ambitions of two men—the former Confederate officer and the black lieutenant governor—to get into Lillian Gish's underpants.
The Birth of a Nation was not the first film to reduce complex historical issues to a simple question of who's humping who (although come to think of it, it may well have been), but that the fate of a nation could come down to a romantic obsession with the freakishly coy Gish—who in one scene flinches from a man's smile the way another woman might flinch from a blow—is preposterous.
The casting of Gish should have been the film's greatest strength. She was, as I've said before, the finest actress of the silent era, and her performances in Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and The Wind are as good as any ever essayed on film. But great as she was, Helen of Troy she was not, and while two men's obsession with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara—essentially a modern flapper in a hoop skirt—could turn Gone With The Wind into one of the greatest romances ever made, Griffith's idealized conception of Gish as a virginal 19th century dishrag was old-fashioned even by 1915's terms.
Thus, without war or the saintly Lincoln or a compelling romance to carry the film's second half, The Birth of a Nation depends purely on its racial politics—and the action related thereto—to supply its forward momentum. And there's the rub: if you don't bring an inate fear of blacks into the theater with you, if the thought of blacks voting, owning property, marrying whomever they want and even, gee whiz, running the country doesn't inherently scare the pants off you, the last ninety minutes becomes unbearably tedious.
I have to admit that even though I'm a veteran of over 600 silent movies, once The Birth of a Nation reached its second half, I found my eyelids growing heavy.
So let's talk about the film's racial politics.
Race And Racism
There's no sidestepping the racism at the heart of The Birth of a Nation, and watching it and claiming not to have an opinion is like saying you only read Playboy for the interviews—you're either a fool or a liar. (Turn-ons: movie bloggers, Netflix. Turn-offs: pan-and-scan.)
There are two types of racism on display in The Birth of a Nation. One you might call "common practice racism," that is to say, the sort of racism that arose from the habitual practices of the day. The use of white actors in blackface, for example, is a prime example. Studios of that era believed that audiences—and maybe more to the point, state and local censorship boards—would object to seeing blacks and whites together on screen, particularly where, as here, violence or sex was involved. So what were clearly white actors in blackface makeup were substituted for black actors.
Too, racial minorities commonly served in film as comic relief, and were most often portrayed—when they were portrayed at all—as ignorant, fearful and subservient clowns. You'll see plenty of that here and while I've argued in the past and will argue again in the future that to ignore every image or performance that a modern audience might find objectionable today would be to present a history of film even more lily white than it already was, I won't pretend that such depictions in The Birth of a Nation aren't as bad as you're ever likely to see.
But ultimately, it's the film's second type of racism, what I'd call "propagandist racism," that is so deeply troubling. For the racism of The Birth of a Nation was not merely an unfortunate, unintentional side effect of the early 20th century's societal ills—it was the point. Thomas Dixon's novel, The Clansman, on which the movie was based, was an unapologetic exercise in white supremacist propaganda, stacking the deck against blacks to foment rage in its intended white audience and garner support for segregationist policies.
The Birth Of A Nation turns history on its head, telling us that after the Civil War a "helpless white minority" lived under the boot heel of black oppression and that the United States didn't become a nation, indivisible, once again until all white people, Northerner and Southerner, Unionist and Confederate, abolitionist and ex-slaveholder, rallied together to combat the single biggest threat to civilization—black men with equal rights.
The film is a white supremacist's wet dream. As history, it's ridiculous. The landed, slave-owning gentry that had led the South out of the Union and into the Civil War may have feared losing its iron-grip on power after the war, but it never feared losing its right to exist; whereas the reality for freed slaves was that their most basic freedoms—to vote, to own property, to walk down the street without fear of being murdered at the whim of a white man—were fragile at best and easily taken away again. The notion that the Klan was the only thing standing between civilization and a marauding hoard of rape-hungry blacks is not only racist, it's a bald-faced lie.
And don't get me started on its views of the Civil War's causes, which are fanciful if by no means unique—meddling abolitionist firebrands, motivated by naked ambition, pious naivete and interracial lust, launch a pre-emptive and unconstitutional war to impose their radical racial views on a peaceful, idyllic South, upsetting the delicate, harmonious balance between benevolent plantation owners and their loyal, contented slaves
In reality, Southern slave owners were more than happy for the federal government to intervene to quash state's rights when it acted in favor of slavery. (I refer you, for example, to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court's Dred Scot decision and the Missouri Compromise, among other historical events.) The foundations of secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens said in his famous Cornerstone Speech, "are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
That later some would say the South seceded for any other reason than to preserve slavery would have come as a great surprise to the men who led it out of the Union.
Admittedly, the South presented in Gone With The Wind isn't any more accurate, but that movie never purports to explain the war or its aftermath except in terms of their colossal inconvenience to Scarlett O'Hara. If she could have bedded Ashley Wilkes by freeing all the slaves she would have done it, and if she could have bedded him without freeing any slave she would have done that. Everything else is irrelevant.
Here, race and racism are pretty much the only point. That Griffith saw the film's source material only as a rousing tale that reminded him of the folksy stories his Confederate grandfather used to tell on the front porch of their rural Kentucky home is a testament to just what a blinkered existence the man led. He was a workaholic who lived only to make movies and he rarely walked beyond the narrow limits of the studio except to shoot yet another movie on location.
Well, he's dead now and has thus paid the ultimate price for his sins. No point in my piling on. He wouldn't feel it anyway.
You, on the other hand, have no excuses. Watch The Birth of a Nation if you want—I've seen it three times—but don't kid yourself as to what you're watching.
The Film's Legacy
One of the most cherished myths of film history (or perhaps just its laziest) is that The Birth of a Nation represented a revolution in filmmaking technique, that with it Griffith invented the feature film, basic editing techniques such as cross-cutting, camera shots such as the close up, and above all, exciting action sequences and chase scenes.
As Roger Ebert has written, "[A]udiences in 1915 were witnessing the invention of intercutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds."
Except he was wrong. As I have written previously (here), when I traced the evolution of film technique between 1906 and 1914, audiences had not only seen everything Ebert is describing, they had seen it enough that Mack Sennett felt comfortable spoofing it in a Keystone Kop comedy made two years before Griffith directed The Birth Of A Nation, with Mabel Normand barricaded in her house, fending off "burglars" who turn out to be her parents while the world's most inept policeman tries to ride to the rescue in a balky automobile. You don't spoof what you've never seen; you only spoof what you've seen so many times that humor arises from subverting the expectations of the audience. (See it here.)
Ebert's misunderstanding is not unique and I shouldn't pick on him—his was the common (mis)perception among film historians for decades. The error is understandable: until recently, very few films made prior to 1915 were available, and when your film library skips the entire decade following The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Birth of a Nation tends to look more startlingly innovative than it really is.
The fact is, while audiences responded to Griffith's film in record numbers, what they weren't doing, at least not for the first time, was seeing the groundbreaking technical breakthroughs that tend to justify The Birth Of A Nation's reputation as a great film. Yes, all those techniques were there, and yes, Griffith put them all together in epic form to tell the most rousing story yet told. But cross-cutting, close-ups, battle scenes—they were already staples of Griffith's filmmaking style, techniques he had developed while making some five hundred shorts for Biograph between 1908 and 1913.
And if you've seen any of those feature-length films I wrote about yesterday (here), you know that these techniques were shared by directors the world over as well.
Which is not to say that The Birth of a Nation wasn't important. It was a huge box office hit at a time when the jury was still out on the commercial viability of the feature-length film. After its release, there was never again a question about whether an audience would pay to sit through a long-form film.
Even more importantly, The Birth of a Nation woke audiences and critics alike to the reality that motion pictures weren't just a novelty, but were in fact an artistic medium, one that would turn out to be the most important of the 20th century. The film's reception inspired a generation of filmmakers, and as a result, we are blessed now with feature films from Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and many others who publicly acknowledged a debt to D.W. Griffith.
Maybe that's not everything that's been claimed for The Birth of a Nation, but it's not nothing either.
To Watch Or Not To Watch
I've been tough on The Birth of a Nation. It's a film a critic needs to be tough on. But I haven't answered the essential question: should you see it?
The answer, as always, is it depends.
As I mentioned earlier, I've watched The Birth of a Nation three times, and my reaction has been different every time. On the first viewing, I think my reaction was the typical one—I was appalled by the film's racist propaganda. The second time through, I was able to see both the power of the film's action sequences and the tedium of its romantic triangle.
But then I watched it a third time, and found that after I had peeled back the racism, after I had peeled back the tedium, what I was watching was the tragedy of American apartheid—"Jim Crow," we called it—as told through the imperfect, unwitting eyes of a triumphant white racist. Why, that's almost Faulkneresque, an Absalom, Absalom on film, if you will, albeit without the genius of William Faulkner's language or his insight standing between you and the deeply-flawed man narrating the story. That Griffith didn't understand the implications of what he was saying doesn't make the tale any less tragic. It's a little like listening to some ignorant blowhard tell a long story all the time not realizing he's the villain of the piece. You listen to him with a queasy look on your face and think, "You dumb bastard," but his blindness doesn't stop you from seeing glimmers of the underlying truth.
Ultimately, Griffith isn't Faulkner and what you're left with is a deeply-flawed would-be masterpiece. If you've never seen a silent movie before, for crying out loud, don't start with this one. It's hard enough to decipher the unfamiliar storytelling techniques of silent film without also having to struggle with the film's racism.
But if you're an amateur film historian, silent film fanatic, budding critic, Civil War buff, or want to get a sense of just how deeply interwoven the issue of race is with America's national character, then the answer is yes, you should eventually see The Birth of a Nation—once you've become well-enough versed in American history to separate the fact from the nonsense.
And if you're a Saturday night movie fan with only a limited interest in silent movies? I'd say there are a lot of other movies you should see first. Click here for my silent movie starter set, see those, then branch out.
To continue to Part Two, a review of the best movie(s) of 1915, Les Vampires, click here.
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