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The Birth Of A Nation

The Birth Of A Nation

By Max Lalanne • November 13th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Epoch Producing Co.

Original release: February 8th, 1915
Running time: 190 minutes

Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: D.W. Griffith, T. F. Dixon, Jr., Frank E. Woods

Cast: Henry Walthall, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Miriam Cooper

The Birth Of A Nation

At first I was intrigued by the controversy and outright disgust aimed at D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation. After all, mused my ignorant self, just how evil could a black-and-white silent Civil War epic from 1915, widely regarded as a ground-breaking classic, possibly be? Very. It’s so unbelievably and even ludicrously racist, to the degree that, near the end, we’re to accept none other than the Klu Klux Klan, charging upon their horses like the crusaders of yore while Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries blazes away, to be noble and triumphant saviors of the Old South sweeping away the impure hordes of African-Americans.

If the rampant racism is taken away, there would be only half a movie, with all the conflict removed. And, the inarguable fact remains, if that were to happen, the world would’ve been and would still be bereft of a genuinely excellent, exciting lengthy work of art. The technical genius at hand from a 97-year-old movie! It’s a moral dilemma of the cinematic kind: do we do our best to try and look past the racism, or accept the fact that it’s there and let it change our opinions about the film?

The first half of The Birth Of A Nation is relatively harmless; bringing to mind a sort of pre-color and -sound Gone With The Wind. The focus of the sweeping story is on two friendly families, one from the North and one from the South. The war forces them apart and on different sides of the trenches, but not all relationships are severed as Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall), the eldest son of the Southern family, keeps with him a photo of Elsie (Lillian Gish), the sister of his Northern friend Phil Stoneman (Elmer Clifton) and his brothers, whom he’s never met but is already infatuated with. Stoneman, for his part, promises one of Cameron’s sisters (Miriam Cooper) that he’ll return to perhaps continue their budding courtship. All shall be reunited and brought together, eventually, but before that happens they’ll have to go through more than just the Civil War (as if that, as we all too clearly witness thanks to some uncommonly spectacular battle sequences, isn’t terrible enough).

The Birth Of A Nation

Namely, the Reconstruction, led by congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), yes, the very same Stoneman. After the peace-seeking Abraham Lincoln is assassinated in 1865, Stoneman and his henchman, the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), set about enforcing radical new measures – freeing black slaves and giving them power equal, or sometimes greater than, that of the whites – that turn the societal structure of the Old South decidedly upside down. Here’s where Griffith makes his mark in telling this story: the freed African-Americans are uncivilized, uncouth and overall malicious people, and it’s clear that under the rule of the Black South, the nation will crumble as a whole. Such is the view of Ben Cameron, who survived the bloody war thanks to Lincoln’s clemency and now finds himself, along with the other Southerners, in a heap of trouble. He takes it upon himself to restore the Aryan race to supremacy and stem the tide of evilness in the form of the Black race by creating the Klu Klux Klan.

One can argue that some of this is based on history, of course, but the approach taken is viciously twisted and bigoted, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring it out. The ugliness asserts itself forcefully. For his part, Griffith, who would, The Birth Of A Nationresponding to the many cries of racism, go on to make Intolerance (1916), inserted this “plea for the art of the motion picture” at the beginning of his movie upon its second theatrical run:

“We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”

Does that statement make The Birth Of A Nation any less ugly? No, but it does suggest that this is, after all, just a movie. What is a movie but an outlet for its director to express feelings and tell a story his or her way, but that’s the thing… The Birth Of A Nation is not just any other old movie with questionable themes or content that you can dismiss as fanciful fleets of fancy. This is a masterpiece of cinema as we now know it, presumably one of the most important movies ever to be made and certainly the most underrated (or the one which everyone would like to forget, maybe, because it just happens to be racist).

Griffith, as Roger Ebert aptly put it,

“…did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or “establishing”) shots and various medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details.” ~ Roger Ebert

It’s impossible to dislike such a trail-blazer that paved the way for the movies of today. And, to make matters worse, The Birth Of A Nation is a really terrific film in itself. I still don’t know what to really think of it; one part of me can’t stand the racism, powering the action forward in a way that we can’t cast it aside, and the other part can’t help respect and love such a landmark achievement. It seems odd that the two contrasting emotions can coexist, but looks like it must be so.

Max Lalanne

Max Lalanne

Max Lalanne is an award-winning student filmmaker - whose debut short won a prestigious award at the Houston Intl. Film Festival when he was just 13. The bi-lingual film blogger and critic also has his own movie website, SmellofPopcorn.com.

He loves almost all kinds of cinema and watches a diverse array of movies on a regular basis, some of his favourites include Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings, Aliens, and Finding Nemo. You can follow Max on Twitter @maxlalanne.

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