With this introductory intertitle The Birth of a Nation is introduced to the audience, and through these words the film is almost preparing itself for the inevitable controversy which it shall create. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the “dark side of wrong” refers to the opportunist Northern whites and the African American slaves of the South who rebel against their servitude, while the “bright side of virtue” refers to the Southern slave owning aristocracy and the Ku Klux Klan.
In these lines D. W. Griffith not only tries to defend the content of his film and contextualize it before it even begins, but also asserts his passion for the artistic potential of film. “By placing his film in the context of canonical written works that have held up over the passing of centuries, Griffith egotistically asserts his own film’s worthiness.” (Editors of Sparknotes). Concerning the history of American film, The Birth of a Nation is arguable the most influential as it fundamentally invented the idea of the feature motion picture and is a classic example of the evolving “language” of cinema at the time.
As viewers were accustomed to seeing films of fifteen to thirty minutes in length The Birth of a Nation was an innovation as it was three hours long and featured a cast of hundreds, forever changing the way the medium of film was perceived. This essay will discuss The Birth of a Nation while considering its content concerning race, melodrama, and its position as a historical epic. By examining the relationships between such topics, this essay will explore the issues which the film raises, and debate how such issues affect The Birth of a Nation being regarded as Tim Dirks asserts: “a controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece”.
The Birth of a Nation represented a turning point in both the direction of cinema and Griffith’s own career. Griffith staked his life savings on this project based on a play titled The Clansmen by a Baptist minister from North Carolina named Thomas Dixon. While Griffith could previously have produced a film each week, The Birth of a Nation took fifteen weeks to rehearse and shoot and three months to edit, with fifteen times as many shots as the longest films to create the complex narratives, and cost eleven times more than any conventional film produced thus far (Sparknotes). The world premiere of The Birth of a Nation took place in Time Square’s Liberty Theatre and was a massive publicity event with colossal billboards depicting members of the Klu Klux Klan on horseback which welcomed the audience to the screening. The film was such a success that it was recommended by the President of the time, Woodrow Wilson, and was the first film to be screened in the White House. The Birth of a Nation was screened around the world and was met with confrontation including riots and protests in many cities, and on a few occasions the screenings were prohibited. Such conflict arose due to the fact that its discriminate and propagandistic content contributed to the restoration of a stronger and more modern Ku Klux Klan which had all but died out since 1869, an issue which worsened as the film grew in popularity to the extent that it held the box office record for well over two decades. Particular criticism emanated from the NAACP who organised many of the riots and pickets which took place, and were supported by many prominent liberals such as Jane Addams, and also some Ivy League presidents. Such protesters managed to force two of the most appalling scenes to be cut from the film, and it was evident that The Birth of a Nation had explored a delicate issue without much sensitivity while exposing prejudices to the extreme of blatant racism.
Griffith’s reaction to the negative feedback towards his film was one of shock as he believed he was carrying out a selfless and honourable function for the nation through his film. The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America was a response released by Griffith which incorporated the opinions of academic historians that supported the version of history which his film encompassed. He was so affected by such a negative reaction that his next film named Intolerance was released as a response to his heated critics. Although Griffith moved on to other projects, the conflict concerning this film persisted, continually reignited by the numerous re-releases of the film which ensured the issues it raised remained in the minds of both the film’s fans and critics alike for the decades that followed. Before examining the racist content which exacted such a heated response from those who viewed The Birth of a Nation, it is important to identify the innovations, refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements it contained which would influence the development of all future films and enthuse film scholars to agree that “it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history” (Dirks). Although The Birth of a Nation rightfully deserves the esteem in which it is held for the ways it changed the language of cinema, it is essential to remember that Griffith himself did not invent all of the techniques used in his work. Many of the techniques and innovations visible in his work had been introduced by filmmakers of the early 1900’s such as Georges Melies or Griffith’s under-rated cameraman and primary collaborator Billy Bitzer. Importance is found rather in The Birth of a Nation as it is here such innovations and techniques culminate and are improved upon in order to communicate the kind of narrative that cinema had been moving towards since its existence. Examples of such innovations incorporated within this film include night-time photography made possible through the use of magnesium flares fired into the sky and the use of hundreds of extras to re-create battle scenes which greatly enhanced the spectacle of the scenes created. The film was also one of the first to utilise an original score along with the use of elaborate intertitles which contributed to the depth of the narrative created. Griffith displayed the effectiveness of parallel editing in his film where through the acceleration of fast cuts between shots he was able to create scenes of suspense which rose to a climax, as visible in one of the final scenes where the Klu Klux Klan is seen speeding to the rescue. Another innovation which Griffith used to construct his narrative was the use of flashbacks, or “switchbacks” as he called them, which are extremely common in films today. The use Griffith made of camera angles and distances was both highly innovative and influential, but more importantly was highly effective throughout The Birth of a Nation whether it be concerning the intimate close-ups of someone’s face to convey subtle emotions, or the contrasting long shots of battles allowing the action to occur on multiple planes of vision simultaneously. Because many of these techniques are now standard features of films but first came together in The Birth of a Nation, countless directors owe their technical knowledge of cinematography to Griffith and the cohesiveness of his film.
Although this film is regarded by many as a masterpiece, it is also highly problematic as those who study it are faced with the challenge of dealing with a piece that simultaneously contains innovative artistry and questionable moral and political views. The racism that permeates The Birth of a Nation clearly depicts African Americans as inferior to their Anglo American equivalents and establishes the notion that African Americans are to blame for all of America’s problems from before the civil war up until the film’s present. While the black community is discriminated against, it is made clear that the Klu Klux Klan are the heroes, thus the film is explicitly racist existing as both a source of pride and shame, so forward-looking and so backward at the same time. “The subject matter of the film caused immediate criticism by the newly created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its racist and “vicious” portrayal of blacks, its proclamation of miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance and its endorsement of slavery” (Dirks). Such racism is evident from the intertitle which introduces the story reading: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion”. This intertitle along with the following scene showing that New Englanders brought the slaves to America establishes the idea that all of the subsequent problems in the film were created by the slaves who spurred such a great and noble land towards civil war. The position of The Birth of a Nation as a melodrama accentuates the racist attributes it contains, in particular concerning the personification of good and evil through exaggerated characters, which in this case is visible through racist stereotyping. Such stereotypes contribute to what make The Birth of a Nation so overtly offensive as they are quite prominent throughout the film. Through the medium of film it became possible to visually express propagated stereotypes of the black community in a clear way which could be shared by the audience. One of the most damaging and controversial stereotypes of the African American endorsed by Griffith was that of the buck, or brute, which as Bogle describes “revealed the tie between sex and racism in America”. In order to promote the idea of white supremacy The Birth of a Nation exploits the sexual stereotype of the buck who is personified for example by the character of Gus. This character, displaying the betrayal aspect of melodrama, turns against his former masters by joining the revolt and causing the suicide of one of the Cameron daughters. This stereotype of the buck, depicting black males as ceaselessly vicious sexual predators, was additionally harmful as the early audiences reacted to what they saw as if it was real, in other words they were unable to distinguish propaganda from the truth and thus the film “spoke to the emotions through the eyes. It showed for all to see that the south was “right” about the Negro” (Reddick). Other stereotypes which Griffith made use of which remained in American films for years to follow included “the noble, loyal manageable Toms, the clownish coons, the stoic hefty mammy, and the tragic “troubled” Mulatto” (Bogle). Although such stereotypes had already existed and had appeared in many different types of media before, they had never been used to the extent introduced by Griffith, or appeared in a film as popular as The Birth of a Nation. What made such depictions found within Griffith’s film more disturbing was the fact that the major black roles were played by white actors in blackface which accentuated the grotesque nature of the racism.
Although the entire film is discriminate towards African Americans, there are certain scenes which embody the insulting racism for which it is criticised. An example of such a scene is the election sequence depicting the shifting of political and social power during Southern Reconstruction. Here one dimensional characters, typical of melodrama, are characterised into simple good and evil. Throughout this scene the viewer watches as the white people who are trying to vote are aggressively denied from doing so by the black characters. This propagandistic version of history influences the audience to feel resentment towards the African Americans who are pictured denying the rights of white voters. Another particularly prejudiced scene portrays the black representatives lusting over white women, eating chicken, drinking whiskey, and kicking off their shoes in the South Carolina legislature. Supporting this hostility towards African Americans is the valorisation of the Klu Klux Klan who are portrayed as heroes who return social order. This is particularly evident towards the end of the film, especially in the climactic finale, where the Klan races to save the day and through the use of parallel editing the viewer inexplicably finds themselves supporting the Klan and hoping that they make it in time to save the white characters who are in danger from the villainous and violent black rebels. Although this is an example of the racism contained in his work, it is also a testimony to Griffith’s skill as a filmmaker.
The symbols used by Griffith are also an important aspect of how racism is communicated through this film and the use of clothing or costumes is an essential example of this. While the majority of the white characters are dressed in civilised clothes, suitable of the hierarchy, their black equivalents are represented in ragged and primitive clothes. For example, when the renegades rampage the Cameron home, one man is wearing just a torn scrap of shirt, exposing his body. This use of clothing makes the African Americans seem like savages, and when the newly elected black representatives take their shoes off and place their bare feet upon the desk it asserts that this savagery exists through all members of the black community. The use of animals in the film communicates the personalities of the races as the pure and kind qualities of white people are visible for example when Elsie and Ben caress a dove or when Flora plays with a squirrel. In comparison to this we see the viciousness or barbaric qualities of the blacks expressed when they are pictured treating animals with cruelty such as when Silas Lynch grabs a dog by the throat and throws it aside. The effective uses of symbols such as these contribute to the negative representation of African Americans, and contribute to the reason so many people have been offended by the content of The Birth of a Nation.
Because of the interpretation of history which can be viewed in The Birth of a Nation, the idea of the film as a historical epic is another issue which places it in a position of controversy. Similar to the Dunning School of historiography, the film asserts that the Ku Klux Klan restored order to the post-war South, or as Steven Mintz summarises: “Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent action of the Klu Klux Klan were justified to re-establish honest government”. As a result of the historical re-enactments, such as the inclusion of battle scenes and cited sources, the film acts like a historical text which raises many problems due to its biased approach. Dangerously, it appears authentic and almost of documentary quality as it seems to reconstruct an important period in history, not only including the civil war but including the events building up to and following it. This realistic appearance proved problematic as it made it easier for the audience to fall under the influence of the narrative and ideologies put forward by Griffith. For example, President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said of the film: “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terrible true”. One obvious opposition to the advertised authenticity of the film is evident however through the black characters being played by white actors in blackface which makes it clear that even on the surface it does not present the viewer with an accurate account of history. This idea is supported by the fact that many historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois disputed the interpretation when it was released and most historians today agree with them, arguing that African Americans were loyal and contributed during the Civil War years and Reconstruction. The film’s depictions of mass paramilitary actions by the Klan are also unsupported as there are no records of historical events equivalent to those portrayed by Griffith. Although The Birth of a Nation can be considered a historical epic, its twisting of history highlights the dangerous capabilities of filmmakers who can weave harmful ideologies into their work. By basing its narrative on historical events and through the genuine appearance of the film, viewers are more likely to believe and adopt the views communicated through The Birth of a Nation as the world of the film and the events it depicts become much more plausible and convincing. This film, viewed as an authentic account of history, would have us believe that in the past the fair white slave owners were wronged by the Northerners who freed the obedient and loyal slaves and allowed them to become the wicked masters. Needless to say this is an example of a historical epic which must be examined with caution as its authenticity and historical accuracy are both highly questionable.
Although anti-black opinions were not uncommon during the silent era, it is important to note that they were mostly used for comic effect to highlight a gentler image of the loyal black servitude. Griffith’s film differs however as in it a depiction is found of African Americans as lesser, more primitive and aggressive beings. This racism becomes increasingly problematic when compared to the oppositely stereotyped white characters in the film who appear as superiors to the black characters; aristocratic and pure. The weaving of such morals through the fabricated historical narrative, along with Griffith’s expert filmmaking techniques, make the dangerous ideologies which exist in the film more believable, and thus place it as propagandistic material. The film is still used today in the recruitment of Klu Klux Klan members and has been voted into both the “Top 100 American Films” by the American Film Institute in 1998 and into the National Film Registry in 1993. It is the popularity of The Birth of a Nation that has triggered much of the controversy surrounding it as it is hard to evaluate a piece that is simultaneously a monumental stepping stone in the context of cinema, and so damaging to the perception of African Americans.