Nearly as long as there has been a cinema, and probably as long as there will be, we’ll have to grapple with The Birth of a Nation. The debate, both amongst and within cinephiles, is not likely to end within my lifetime (and I’m still pretty young, yet), nor should it. It is impossible to overlook entirely its racist overtones, and wouldn’t be terribly fruitful even if one could (though a little context never hurt anybody). However, it is a film that runs nearly 200 minutes long, and has a great more going on within it than what it has become most famous for.
For starters, yes, it is “technically and formally innovative,” for whatever that’s worth to the modern viewer. That “modern viewer” isn’t only a casual one, mind – so much writing has been done about Griffith’s accomplishments here, that The Birth of a Nation has taken on that most horrible of qualities, that it is only an “important” film, nothing more. I offer, instead, that, for those who have some knowledge, experience, and appreciation for the storytelling modes of silent cinema, you may be surprised to learn it is actually, in several respects, quite a good film, too.
Those “technical innovations” are no small thing. They were only innovative, after all, because Griffith used them so expertly that hundreds of other filmmakers felt immediately urged to pick them up. It is not that Griffith invented (or codified, if you prefer) cross-cutting, it’s that he made them worthwhile, and their power, as cinema, remains as potent today, even taking into account their often unfortunate context.
I was, however, struck (this was my first time watching the film, I should note) by the use of such techniques earlier in the film, when the proceedings are (a little) less morally compromised, and in many regards, are actually quite affecting. Griffith stages his massive Civil War battles with a beautiful sense of composition and spectacle, but unlike so many filmmakers, especially of the modern era, there isn’t much glory to be had here. It’s not just the brutality, which is acknowledged in the title cards. It’s the pointlessness. The Birth of a Nation was released just shy of fifty years after the war it depicted had ended. Many people seeing it were directly impacted by its events. Some perhaps even took part.
For a modern reference point, look at Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, made a little more than fifty years following its depicted conflict. It acknowledges the brutality and senselessness of battle, but upholds the essential goodness of the cause and those fighting for it. There’s very little of that in The Birth of a Nation, which continually reenforces the idea that war – not just this one, but any war – destroys families, turns friend against friend (indeed, this film’s loose plot traces two families, one from the North, another from the South), and leaves little except a field of bodies. That’s a bold stance in any climate, but consider further that it was released just after World War I had broken out, and a few years before America would feel compelled to enter it. Potent stuff.
However, the way it carries this theme into the Reconstruction Era, depicting a landscape in which African Americans roamed the streets like an official militia, harassing harmless white citizens, while other African Americans swarmed Congressional seats with all the fried chicken and alcohol they could carry is more than a little alarming. It goes beyond methods of depiction (that is to say, the blackface is by far the least racist thing about its portrait), which was influenced mostly by political cartoons, and it shows – anyone who isn’t The Upstanding White Man or Love Interest is wildly caricatured. This might work at a starting point, except those are also the only people being mocked and marginalized, so it becomes a cheap tactic to do just that. But it is how Griffith portrays his black characters, what he has them do, and the light in which he paints their actions that is so troubling.
Further, it gives short shrift to some incidents which might have complicated, or at least deepened, motivations on both sides. A case is related in which a black judge and jury ruled against white defendants, but the specifics are totally ignored – the film posits that as a clear injustice merely because black people rules against whites. When the roles are later reversed, however, there isn’t even a trial – a group of white men just declare the guilt of a black man, and dump his body on the governor’s porch. And, naturally, we’re meant to cheer. Later, a section of the film is introduced as “disarming the blacks,” but it is made up of only a single shot in which black soldiers, surrounded by whites, lay down their guns and run away.
These are some illustrations of how, aside from being morally rancid, the film’s second half is just not a particularly fine piece of drama. It’s already taxing whenever a film employs the “History…Through the Eyes of One Family That Saw it All” narrative, placing its protagonists at Events of Great Import (just wait for them to wave at Abraham Lincoln one fateful night in Ford’s Theatre), though the avenue for this is somewhat paved by placing at the head of one family a rough facsimile of abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (famous to modern viewers for bearing a fair resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones). Though Griffith spends a great deal of time building and establishing him as a dangerous political force, by the film’s conclusion, everything he’s incited becomes no more complex than a villain tying a helpless woman to the railroad. Makes a certain degree of sense as mainstream cinema, but drastically undermines the film’s attempts at social significance, though its hateful attitudes have precluded that by this point anyway (especially by the time the Ku Klux Klan becomes the rescue party).
I’m in no position to settle the the uneasy tension this film creates between its purpose as art/entertainment/cinema and that of its larger cultural power, and, as I stated up top, I don’t see any point in finding any definite settlement. On the back of the booklet accompanying this release, Masters of Cinema included an excerpt from an article Kent Jones wrote in a recent issue of Film Comment. I’ve further excerpted the most salient bit:
If they had been mere propagandists like Fritz Hippler or Veit Harlan, their film would never have had the effect that it did. That’s not splitting hairs, but the thorny, unwelcome, complicated truth. The question is, how do we live with it?
You can start to answer that question for yourself now with Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray edition of The Birth of a Nation. Using the same source as Kino did a year and a half back (the booklet notes that MoC licensed it from them), the film looks as spectacular – if not more so – than you would expect of a film of its age. I don’t have the Kino edition to compare, but I suspect the differences are fairly negligible. The film was shot for exhibition at 16 frames per second (fps), so, in confronting the limitations of the Blu-ray format (which only allows for 24fps, for reasons, I’ll admit, I’ve never totally understood), MoC has taken what has become an increasingly popular option – duplicating frames. Essentially, every third frame is a repeat of the one before it, so you’re only seeing 16 distinct frames each second, but twenty-four total. The result mostly works, and from everything I’ve read seems to be the best way to work around these difficulties, but I will admit that, in some of the faster movements, you can notice a blurring of the motion that comes from seeing the same frame twice. Screencaps here have been compressed and resized, but nicely indicate what you’re in for.
Being a silent film, there’s no sound element to preserve, but the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s score is spectacular, bravely rising to meet the film on its level, and not sheepishly side-stepping when it comes time to blare the triumphant music for those characters we now see as villains, but which the film posits as heroes. Those who heard their work on Les Vampires may recognize a major theme they’ve reused here (to lesser effect, I’d argue), but otherwise, it’s stellar.
The special features here are fantastic, though, again, if you have Kino’s disc, they will seem mighty familiar. The one I’d go to first, after seeing the film, natch, is “The Making of The Birth of a Nation,” David Shepard’s very fine 24-minute exploration of the production, release, and legacy of the film. It also nicely sets up what are, for me, the best set of special features, seven of Griffith’s silent Civil War shorts. By understanding the context in which they were made and released, one comes to appreciate their value much more, and consequently that of The Birth of a Nation. They echo the feature’s somber attitude towards the war and its effects, and reaffirm the humanist elements of Griffith that may get lost by the end of Birth.
Further trying to reaffirm his humanist elements is Griffith himself, who appears, with Walter Huston of all people, in a short introductory piece for the film’s 1930 re-release. As you’ll discover in the booklet, the racial attitudes in the film were not “pervasive of the time,” as some insist, and were controversial as soon as the public got ahold of the thing. It is said that Griffith made his next film, 1916’s Intolerance, as a way of making amends. And yet here he is, in 1930, doubling down on Woodrow Wilson quotes in the hopes of bolstering the historical veracity of his film’s depiction of the Reconstruction Era. It’s a wild world, ladies and gents. Come for the stubbornness, stay for the kids who excitedly come upon these two talking, and just can’t wait for what they have to say (no, really, this happens).
As always, we finish by acknowledging that Masters of Cinema puts together one hell of a booklet for each and every one of their releases, and this is hardly an exception. Through this alone, you can trace the many attitudes towards the film, as it utilizes the words of Griffith himself, along with Thomas Dixon (whose novel, The Clansman, provided the basis for the film) a 1915 editorial lambasting the film’s portrait of African-Americans, Griffith’s response to that, a great defamatory essay by Francis Hackett, a 1945 article by Seymour Stern, and a short piece by filmmaker Michael Powell, who chose The Birth of a Nation as a “Guilty Pleasure” when asked by Film Comment in 1981.
I certainly can’t say whether one should or should not spend good money on this release. I perfectly understand why many would not want to make contact with it, let alone have it in their home for all time. I certainly resisted seeing it for many, many years, and the film itself is perhaps less great than its champions might have indicated. But I doubt you’ll find a greater consideration of it, a release that puts it in as fine a context and presents the work so gorgeously.