Birth of a Nation (1915) dir D.W. Griffith. USA.
Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but “The Birth of a Nation” demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.
To understand “The Birth of a Nation” we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. “The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.
But it is possible to separate the content from the craft? Garry Wills observes that Griffith’s film “raises the same questions that Leni Riefenstahl’s films do, or Ezra Pound’s poems. If art should serve beauty and truth, how can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies?”
The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil. In that case, “The Birth of a Nation” is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America.
Abigail: I am so embarrassed for the medium watching this. If this is the Birth of Modern Film, we have more to atone for than I even realized. It is the most racist horrifying propaganda I have ever seen. No wonder race is still such a prevalent problem Hollywood. This continues being touted as a vanguard for the art form. Hideous. We cannot divorce form from content – and the form is used to glorify the KKK and dehumanize Black Americans.
Forrest: This film is odious. It’s also, frankly, not very good at telling its story, such as it is. For the few portions of the movie I wasn’t apoplectic with rage and shame, I was bored. Cabiria is the sort of movie people who think they won’t like silent films should watch. Birth of a Nation isn’t — it reinforces all the cliches of early film: it’s turgid, interminable, artificial, and instead of drawing the audience in it holds them at arm’s length. If I were a director it’s possible I’d have valued it more. But as a writer, I didn’t like it. And as a human with a soul, I loathed it.