D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.
On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film. This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.
And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.
Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.
In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.
How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.
But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind. No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier. Why do we show it to them? I have no idea. Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915. As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.
More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.
So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.