Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith                                    Writers: D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods
Music: Joseph Carl Breil                                Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Starring: Lillian Gish, Henry Walthall, Ralph Lewis and George Siegmann

Sigh. Okay, we have a racist film here that perpetuates blatant stereotypes and outright historical lies, denigrating blacks and making heroes of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand we have a film that displays a technical mastery of the medium that, over the years, has commanded respect. How are we to judge? The Birth of a Nation by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith has long resided atop best film lists for decades due to its innovations in the use of film grammar and the way that it created our modern sense of the motion picture. Critics have been happy to rationalize their admiration for the film by giving perfunctory apologies for the racism before launching into their laudatory assessment of the film. Thankfully, that is beginning to change. Not all at once, but there’s an increasing sense that, as critics, we can admire the mechanical mastery of the film without raising the film as a whole to some exalted status, that when considering a film for commendation relative to other films that taking into consideration the subject matter of the film is equally important. As such, I would like to see this film taken off those lists and replace by another, less offensive, Griffith work, feeling free of course to mention the innovations in this film and the way they manifest themselves in a picture more deserving of overall praise.

Before the picture even starts Griffith makes one of the most disingenuous disclaimers I have ever seen, stating in part that the film shouldn’t be censored because “we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” But all this really does is point up his complete ignorance about the film he made. Take a film like American History X, now that’s a film about racism that does “illuminate the bright side of virtue” by showing “the dark side of wrong” in the way the main character comes to realize the error of his ways. But The Birth of a Nation doesn’t do that; in fact, it celebrates that dark side without offering the slightest glimpse of virtue. The film begins by setting up a juxtaposition between two families, the Stoneman’s from Pennsylvania and the Cameron’s from South Carolina. The two Stoneman brothers, Elmer Clifton and Robert Harron, go south for a visit and Clifton falls for the oldest Cameron daughter, Miriam Cooper, while the oldest Cameron son, Henry Walthall, becomes infatuated with a picture of Clifton’s sister, Lillian Gish. And this sets up the standard melodramatic premise of Civil War romances.

The lies and rationalizations begin almost immediately, as the Stoneman patriarch, Ralph Lewis, apparently can’t keep his hands off the half-black housekeeper, Mary Alden, and his actions will evidently “blight a nation.” The blacks in the south are stereotypically exaggerated in terms of their servile and buffoonish behavior. Lincoln declares war, all of the brothers march off to fight, and then the narrative skips ahead two and half years. Of course, the first troops we actually see fighting are black soldiers from the North invading the Cameron home and behaving like animals as they set fire to the house with the girls trapped inside. The Confederate soldiers, naturally, come to the rescue. The younger boys are killed in the conflict, survived by Clifton and Walthall, who finally meets Gish in a Maryland hospital. The first part of the film is a rather banal summary of the Civil War. The second part begins with more rationalization, Griffith using the racist history by then president Woodrow Wilson, a racist himself, to preface the section on Reconstruction and give it legitimacy. In fact, the second half is sickening to watch as lie upon lie is perpetuated, justifying the actions of the Klan and those like them. The most ironic title card states that the Northerners are deluding the ignorant, when it is Griffith who is delusional and the ignorant are those who believe him. While Griffin did pioneer many of the devices used in the film, such as night shooting, iris effects, panoramic battle scenes and such, his stationary camera is maddening at times, especially in the interior scenes, not to mention the fact that Raoul Walsh and others were using moving camera techniques during the same period to great effect.

In The A List essay by Dave Kehr we find yet another apologist for the film. So be it. I’m sure he feels he’s demonstrating his intellectual objectivity by tossing off a sentence proclaiming it “perhaps the most virulently racist imagery ever to appear in a motion picture,” leaving him free to then gush over the film for the rest of the essay. In it he emphasizes the male/female opposition as one of sexual conquest either tamed or uncontrolled. But of course blacks take the brunt of the negative portrayals while the whites from both sides come off as the paragons of virtue. Never once does he take the idea of oppositions that he has raised and point out the fact that by the second half of the film all of the blacks are portrayed as evil--with the exception of those still loyal to their slave masters--while all whites from either side are good. Griffith in one breath spouts off about peace and yet sows the continued seeds of racial hatred in our “united” country. Kehr also gives in to the implied myth that cinema would not have advanced without this film, ignoring or oblivious to the fact that other directors had already outstripped Griffith’s talent by 1915 and that change was inevitable. The Birth of a Nation is an embarrassment to cinema, but at least it was only made once. The film is a continued embarrassment to film critics who continue to laud its construction and creator while ignoring its racist message.

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