The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915)

Movie Poster For 'The Birth Of A Nation'Directed by: D.W. Griffiths. I know what you’re thinking—couldn’t he have found a slightly less racist poster image for this movie? I really couldn’t, and that tells you a lot about this movie already. This was one of those movies that keeps coming up over and over again, especially if you were at one time a student of cinema, or if you go through life nominally considering yourself a “student of cinema”, and you want to be aware of an important film and why it’s important, even though it’s politically repulsive. I have taken out this movie and also the Nazi movie Triumph of the Will twice or three times from the library, and not watched them and returned them. So I’m aware that on my secret government record of my library habits, it looks like I really like the two most famously racist movies of all time—so I’m damn sure going to watch it this time! The two major takeaways of this movie are how horribly racist it is and also how skillfully it was made, how influential it was on future generations of filmmakers, how it singlehandedly set the precedent for film syntax and editing techniques, etc, to the modern day. The first part was easy—this is so fucking racist it’s almost unbelievable. I consider myself a pretty jaded, desensitized person, but holy shit there is some offensive shit in this movie. The notion that the fucking minute slavery is abolished, the state legislature is overrun by hordes of cackling black guys with their bare feet up on their desks, eating sandwiches and drinking beer and hooting and hollering as soon as a white woman comes in. I guess I was expecting it to be fucked up, but seeing it with your own eyes is something else. The rest of it—the brilliant impact, etc—is tougher to spot, partly because, like with Citizen Kane or Shakespeare or anything else that society dictates was capital-g Great, the impact was so strong that we don’t really notice anything particularly striking about it, because everything that came after it, everything we’ve seen, follows that mould so exactly. I looked it up a bit, and I guess what people were on about was the use of close-ups, which weren’t terribly common, and the use of parallel editing—two or more lines of action, cut against one another, alternating back and forth to heighten the tension. In this case, an illustrative example is one of the more awful parts of the movie, where a black guy (a white guy in blackface), is chasing a white girl, and her brother is chasing after them both, trying to catch up in time to save her. Very effective, Mr. Griffith, very compelling use of montage! Too bad it’s in the service of some of the worst shit I’ve ever seen in cinema. The appreciation of this film works like that. And despite whatever film professors or cinema students may insist, it’s just going to be difficult for modern people to appreciate this one. I understand, and it’s important to know the roots of cinema, even when it’s ugly—arguably especially when that’s the case. But I don’t think you can blame the modern generation of film viewers, or even film enthusiasts, for not leaping to watch a three hour glorification of the KKK, even if it was the “first Hollywood epic”. The thing that really kicked me in the pants was watching Ava DuVernay’s excellent documentary about the connection between slavery and the modern prison system, 13th. In that film, they talk about Birth of a Nation and how phenomenally popular it was (the first “blockbuster”), and how this film—this fucking film—is generally agreed to be single-handedly responsible for the revived interest in the KKK. That blew me away—the KKK was a relatively small, backwards historical curiosity, a relic of the 19th century, that had all but lost steam by the 20th century, and after this fucking movie came out, it came up again, and became the fairly large, powerful terrorist organization that we know today. This was striking to me not just for the bare facts of it, but because I’m always thinking about the connection between films and life itself, the art vs life debate, and here at least is one pretty striking example of when a film is not “just” a film. This movie reaffirmed to me more than ever the responsibility that filmmakers have, especially filmmakers with big production budgets and big advertising budgets, filmmakers who are in a position to reach millions of people with the ideas conveyed in their film. You hear me, filmmakers? Pay attention to your shit!

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One response to “The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2016 | Offhand Reviews·

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