In 1915, D. W. Griffith was one of the hottest up-and-coming directors of the fledgling film industry, with a plan to create the first big budget film epic ever. He did just that, and for decades his magnum opus was considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and many still believe that. However, in modern times, it has become more renowned as the most racist film in movie history. Despite the politically incorrect content, most critics still defend the movie for its groundbreaking filmmaking techniques, which helped shape 20 century cinema. (Hence it’s 100% critic rating.) Should this film be vilified because of its racist content or viewed for its influential cinematic achievements?
The film industry was still in its infancy in 1915 when Griffith joined with some partners to form Reliance-Majestic Studios in order to create the first genuine large-scale epic in film in history. At a time when most movies were only an hour long or less, D.W. Griffith had the idea to produce a two hour-plus extravaganza. It would take place during the Civil War/Reconstruction period—except that Griffith’s version of history would have a certain personal spin! D.W. Griffith was a highly skilled director who would go on to direct such classics as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm, but his reputation will forever be tied to this classic of political incorrectness, which is still being debated a century later. (If that was his goal, then well done!)
The film was originally titled The Clansman, but has become better known over the years as the Birth of a Nation. It’s been called one of the most significant films ever and has been preserved by the National Film Registry. It was the first film to be screened at the White House, viewed by US President Woodrow Wilson. It was also the first highly controversial film, since the NAACP (which had recently formed in 1909) protested it and tried to have it banned. The attempts to ban it backfired, causing increased interest in the movie.
Some film purists have called this a great masterpiece, and to be fair, in certain respects, this film was a very impressive achievement. It was visually stunning—the sets, the costumes, the North vs. South battle scenes—it was the biggest thing that anyone had ever seen on screen at that time. The amazing battle charge in this film remained unequaled in its deadly realism until Saving Private Ryan. The movie set the trend for the way films would be shot from then on. Griffith pioneered filming/editing techniques that have become the accepted style of visual narrative ever since. It was hugely successful and is considered the first-ever movie Blockbuster, remaining the highest grossing film for many years. Critics praised it at the time and still do today.
However, all these visual accomplishments are ruined by the heinous subject matter and the biased twist on history. The first half of the film depicts the pre-Civil War south as a wonderful place and the last bastion of class and gentility in the world. It also portrays abolitionism as a corrupt liberal plot to ruin the country. And this is actually the less offensive part of the movie! The wheels really come off the wagon in the second half, when it focuses on how freed blacks are ruining the country and portrays the Klu Klux Klan as a group of noble heroes restoring order to the nation. The supposedly ‘uplifting’ ending has the Klansmen forming a barrier to prevent blacks from voting, thus taking any power away from the “savages”.
Most of the black characters in the film are played by white actors in make-up, and are all portrayed as dumb, undisciplined, sexually lustful wildmen. The climax of the film has the evil Lynch (a black character, of course) kidnapping pretty, white Elise (Lillian Gish) and planning to rape her, while at the same time, a white family is trapped in a cabin surrounded by black attackers. Everyone is rescued by the Klansmen, of course
The message Griffith intended for his film was that black people could never be integrated into proper society and would always revert to their primal nature, ruining everything. This movie argues that the Klan kept order in the post-war period and saved the country. The film also ignores the fact that the South made the first aggressive actions during the Civil War (at Fort Sumter) and depicts the south as the victims, while President Abraham Lincoln is seen as a warlike dictator.
Roger Ebert had an interesting view on this film. He said, “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. It is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about filmmaking, and even something about evil.” He’s not alone in his praise. Some critics make the claim that The Birth of a Nation is the film that first made people take movies seriously as a medium. Birth of a Nation has even been called the birth of Film as an Artform. On the other hand, it set civil rights back by decades and was credited with the second wave rebirth of the Klan.
It would be easy to pretend this exercise in prejudice doesn’t exist, but it does. As Roger Ebert pointed out, “The film is an unavoidable fact of American movie history and must be dealt with.” Supporters of the film can make the argument that The Birth of a Nation is important because it promotes discussion and puts a spotlight on the issue of prejudice. Recently, it’s been shown to college audiences as a lesson on American attitudes towards blacks in the early 20 century.
The film’s director is an interesting example of a very racist man who didn’t think himself to be prejudice at all. However, the criticism of this film drove him to make the movie Intolerance, (1916) which condemned prejudice, but was most likely done only to appease the people who called him a racist.
Clearly, critical consensus is that Griffith’s impressive film innovations and lasting influence on cinema makes up for his racist message. Many consider The Birth of a Nation as the first true classic of the film industry. 100 years later, in a more informed era, it’s hard to separate the message from the art. Can the visual majesty and trendsetting techniques of this film overcome the prejudice it advocates? Can art and content be judged separately?