Directed by D.W. Griffith
Written by D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, and Walter Long
D.W. Griffith’s cinematic landmark “The Birth of a Nation” has for the last century, existed with two legacies. Two legacies that are of equal weight in affecting the dissection and people’s perception of “The Birth of a Nation.” These two legacies are the film as a milestone in the history of motion pictures and the film sociopolitical context. If you look at the audience responses to the movie on websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, or because of the film’s public domain status YouTube, the responses fall into one of three categories. The first category is the people understand that the movie is groundbreaking, but the content is off-putting. The second category is the people who only focus on that content, many of whom I doubt have seen the movie and only know it by reputation. I have seen a few such comments that say something like “I am aware of the film’s reputation, and I refuse to watch it because of its reputation.” The third group, are for lack of a better term, neutral. The kind of people who say “sure, the movie is a landmark, but the content is too jarring, so I do not know how I am supposed to feel about it.”
To start in discussing “The Birth of a Nation” I believe that the discussion should begin with the first, and most important, of the two legacies of the film, the cinematic legacy. “The Birth of a Nation” is a landmark in American cinema because with this movie Griffith evolved and elevated the language and art of the motion picture. Regarding the language of film, Griffith made a lot of innovations: cross-cutting, panoramic long shots, score, the composition of the battle scenes, and feature length, just to name a few. All of these innovations advanced the cinematic narrative. Before “The Birth of a Nation” some of these techniques had been in use, but Griffith elevated these techniques and made them industry standards. Similar to how Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but is the reason everyone owns the car today.
While cross-cutting, a film editing technique that shows action occurring in different locations simultaneously, has been used in earlier films such as 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” and Griffith’s 1909 film “A Corner in Wheat.” In “The Birth of a Nation” Griffith uses the cross-cut to construct an excellent battle scene that also includes the other techniques that Griffith was pioneering at the time. Long shots that capture the filed in a panorama, color tinting, and iris shots to highlight certain aspects of the frame and elicit an emotional response and even close-ups that like the tinting draws your attention to a particular detail. The battle sequence in this movie was on a scale not seen in motion pictures at the time. Griffith managed to make a few hundred extras appear on screen as several thousand. The cross-cut is also used to great effect to create a thrilling climax spread across three different locations and gives three different perspectives on the situation. The art of the narrative is furthered by the cross-cut in “The Birth of a Nation” because the technique used as a device that builds the dramatic tension, and with each cut it gets tighter and tenser. This movie represents the apex of everything that Griffith had learned throughout his career and establishing it as essential parts of the art from this point forward.
Aside from photographic innovations one of the great innovations of “The Birth of a Nation” was its use of score. During the silent period, it was common to have a pianist, an organist, or even a full orchestra. The musician would often improvise These accompaniments, or compile them from pieces of classical music. “The Birth of a Nation” was one of the first, if not the first, film distributed with a score composed specifically for the movie. The score included original music, “The Perfect Song,” classical music, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and even arrangements of popular songs that would have been familiar to the audience, the traditional Southern tune “Dixie.” Fun fact, the score composed specifically for the film distributed only on the East Coast; the showings on the West Coast used a different score. In recent times, all movies have scores that a written for them, back in 1915 having a score composed for specifically for a film was new and exciting.
The last innovation that Griffith made with “The Birth of a Nation” was, again not something new per se, but it was something that Griffith would turn into the industry standard. The feature-length motion picture. In 1915, the movie was not the movie as we know it today. Hollywood would not even become what we think of as Hollywood until the 1920s. The films in 1915 had not progressed that far beyond the novelty shown in nickelodeons, theaters where admission was a nickel, like at the start of the twentieth century. The significant difference by 1915 was that the movies had seen rapid growth in popularity, and they were beginning to show in places that were a little larger than the nickelodeons. The release of “The Birth of a Nation” was Hollywood’s first blockbuster, six decades before the release of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” For 24 years “The Birth of a Nation” held the title of the highest grossing film in America, until being displaced by “Gone with the Wind.” After “The Birth of a Nation” the feature would replace the one and two-reelers, films running for 10-20 minutes, that were the standard release format until then. Hollywood as an industry came from the success of Griffith’s film because after “The Birth of a Nation” the movies started to be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, for Griffith “The Birth of a Nation” also carries a darker legacy. A legacy that dominates the discussion of the film because it is the legacy that when discussing the movie everyone makes sure to go out of their way to say “the views expressed in this movie are not my own, repeat, the views expressed in this movie are not my own.” We now get to the films controversial portrayal of African Americans.
It is true that the representation of the African Americans may be hard to handle for a modern audience, and it is also true that all the principal Black role are played by White actors in Blackface, with Black actors appearing as extras. There is one thing that I noticed about “The Birth of a Nation” that gets lost in the discussion about this film and the African Americans. “The Birth of a Nation” is an important historical document in the history of race in America because it highlights the defunct Dunning School of historiographical thought. The Dunningite philosophy was one that supported conservative southern values and believed that Reconstruction failed because Black suffrage had been a mistake, and the resulting state governments had been corrupt and oppressive. This school of thought had dominated the socio-political discussion of Reconstruction during the early twentieth century, especially in the South. The Dunningite society is the society in which Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel/play “The Clansman” adapted into “The Birth of a Nation,” and Griffith would have grown up. Dixon and Griffith were both Southerners who raised during and just after Reconstruction. I do not know a lot about the personal politics of either man, but the content of the film is clearly in line with the Dunningite thought. The underlying Dunningite philosophy also contradicts the assertion that “The Birth of a Nation” is revisionist history. The Dunning School was a real school of thought about Reconstruction and was dominate in 1915. Thankfully, starting in the 1930s, the Dunning School fell out of favor.
The one thing that I would like to clear up is the notion that “The Birth of a Nation” is a Ku Klux Klan propaganda film. Yes, the movie glorifies the Klan, yes, the Klan use it as a recruitment tool, and yes, the film spurred the renascence of the Klan. I know the evidence does not favor me, but there is evidence that supports my assertion. Dixon was offered membership in the Klan and turned it down because he disagreed with the Klan being a domestic terrorist group. If “The Birth of a Nation” is propaganda for anything it is propaganda for the conservative Dunningite philosophy of Reconstruction. The pro-Confederacy Cameron’s throughout the movie are fearful of the radical changes being made by the government, now run by Northern Republicans and the freed slaves., and The Cameron’s fear that this new government will be detrimental to the South and the Southern ideology.
The racism in “The Birth of a Nation” is a product of its time, and nothing more. I believe that the reason the discussion about race in the film is still being had 100 years after its release is because shortly after the premier of the movie on February 8, 1915, Griffith decided to change the title from “The Clansman” to “The Birth of a Nation.” The title “The Birth of a Nation” implies that the film that you are about to watch tells the story of the birth of modern America. The modern America depicted in “The Birth of a Nation” is founded on a racist view of what happened following the Civil War. If Griffith had kept the original title of “The Clansman” I believe that the movie would be accepted as what it is, a work of fiction. The only historical aspect of the film is that the Civil War and Reconstruction were real events that happened in our history, other than those events, “The Birth of a Nation” is a fictional work that is a product of its time and environment.
While, the content – a product of its time, not a grand timeless sociopolitical statement — of “The Birth of a Nation” may be off-putting to modern audiences, it is important to remember that the film is a cinematic landmark that created the motion picture artistry and industry as we know it today.