THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Racist Lies of 1915 Shed Light on Racist Lies of 2018

A Cinematic Masterwork Does Irreparable Harm [Twilight Time Blu-ray Review]

“The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule” — Title Card from The Birth Of A Nation by D.W. Griffith, 1915

“Our ancestors trounced an empire, tamed a continent, and triumphed over the worst evils in history… We are not going to apologize for America. We are going to stand up for America.” — Donald J. Trump, President of the United States Of America, May 25th, 2018

While it’s clear that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation is a seminal work of narrative filmmaking and will forever live in infamy as a result (being seen by new eyes generation after generation) that doesn’t mean one can’t wish it were never made. And how I do wish it were never made. This is something I’ve rarely, if ever, said about a film. But then again, I’ve really never seen anything like The Birth Of A Nation.

Far from a silent film aficionado, I believe this is the very first silent feature film I’ve ever seen aside from Melies’ A Trip To The Moon. (I confess this to my great shame). The format has always felt like a challenge for me, so far back in the historical filmmaking tool kit as to play clunkily. But Griffith does manage to craft an engaging (if overwrought) tale that relatively quickly attenuated this newcomer’s film watching rhythms to those of the silent era. Again, as a total novice I find it odd that actors are speaking to one another as shots and scenes play out, watching their mouths move and not knowing what they’re saying. Relying on title cards to fill in details, context, and dialog was an oddity that I thought would prove too much for me, but which I actually adjusted to with a surprising quickness. Experiencing the 3 hour silent epic has opened me further to exploring films of this era, despite having a violent reaction to the messaging of the film itself.

I’ve long understood D.W. Griffith’s film to be a titan of early cinema, blazing a trail so unexplored that almost all of the storytelling tropes we know and love today have at least some of their origin in Griffith. Such concepts as cross cutting between scenes that are happening simultaneously, as well as tracking shots, close ups, and massively staged battle sequences are often credited to Griffith as their innovator. I will say that personally I found the experience of this story to be quite fascinating and surprisingly accessible. Storytelling techniques utilized here felt very familiar and shockingly modern. For example, Griffith obviously has grandiosity in mind with the title of his film. But he wisely seeks to tell the story of a nation through the perspectives of two families: The Stonemans of the North, and the Camerons of the South. Old chums ravaged by the Civil War (and doing some ravaging of their own). This is highly effective and hearkens to the huge roster of key players we’re required to get to know intimately if we’re to follow such modern epics as Game Of Thrones or The Lord Of The Rings.

As the first half of The Birth Of A Nation races on, a pre-war visit between the two families plants the seeds for high melodrama as the younger sons soon die at one another’s hands on the battlefield. Dramatizations of key battles play out with technical marvel and Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as a fair victor who will deal magnanimously with the defeated south. The first half of the film comes to an end with a dramatized sequence of Lincoln’s assassination and it’s quite compelling. In fact, while the first half of The Birth Of A Nation depicts much in the way of institutional racism, propagating the concept of the “happy slave” among other ills, there’s nothing quite so willfully ignorant and lie-filled as the coming second half of the film.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Griffith’s film takes a much less grand historical approach and instead adapts a novel by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman. In this half of the film, the northern Stoneman family become radical abolitionists hellbent on putting the noble south under the boot heels of the vengeful black armies flexing their new power after the abolition of slavery. The noble Camerons have no choice but to found the Ku Klux Klan to deliver the south from these rage-filled carpetbaggers and marauding black soldiers. Ultimately attempting to vaunt an anti-war message, Griffith depicts a south so shattered by war and the ascendant black man (empowered by politicians hellbent on punishing the confederate states) that former Union and Confederate soldiers will band together under the white hoods of the Klan in order to valiantly fight against the soldiers who would pursue the South’s white women and defile the Aryan race.

Truly, explicitly vile and fanciful to boot, The Birth Of A Nation can be misconstrued as nothing less than revisionist propaganda portraying a noble South blessed by whiteness and a savage animalistic horde of black soldiers and carpetbaggers who’ll stop at nothing to destroy the plantation way of life and defile the sacred bloodlines of the former slave owners. Wildly popular on a scale previously unseen at the time of release, The Birth Of A Nation toured the country at a time when a narrative like this was ripe to plant seeds into people’s minds. Often credited for reinvigorating a dying KKK, there’s no doubt in my mind that the technical brilliance of The Birth Of A Nation made a hateful and false grand narrative palpable for wide audiences and fomented an utterly sinful worldview that requires whites to own none of their culpability in the slave trade and failed reconstruction. It’s impossible to know just how fully this objectively false narrative infected the thinking of citizens all across the south who experienced this film as a modern, technical marvel unlike anything they had ever seen before.

Perhaps most egregiously, watching The Birth Of A Nation today, in 2018, under the scourge of Donald J. Trump’s embarrassing presidency, one can almost trace a direct line from the popularized hate of The Birth Of A Nation to the lies and racism our sitting president used to inflame his base and grasp power through division, falsehood, and grand conspiratorial narratives that appease the ignorant and promote a singular, decidedly white, redemption narrative.

The great modern embarrassment of Donald Trump was indeed the impetus behind my desire to watch the film, and no doubt on the minds of the good folks at Twilight Time who are releasing this restored film amid such fraught times. Grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this seminal film preserved with care from over 100 year ago (twice as long since the film was released in 1915 as it was removed from the actual Civil War), I nonetheless personally renounce not only the hurtful narrative Griffith chose to tell, but also the campaign to sanitize and soften the impact of that choice. Griffith himself seemed to believe in his own story, and also claim that it was not explicitly racist. It is.

The mere fact that the triumphant climax of the Cameron family saga is a horde of white-hooded Klansman riding to the rescue of a town assaulted by evil freed slaves makes explicit the propagandistic nature of the film, and it turns my stomach. That many today use the same kind of propagandistic techniques to weave a tale of noble whites and opportunistic blacks and foreigners and refugees is equally cringe inducing and demands full on repentance.

That, as a nation, we’ve refused to own, wrestle with, and grieve the institution of slavery and the injustice done to all African American and Native people has resulted in the the current state of disarray and hate we are experiencing. May lies and propaganda like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation and self-serving narratives spun by our great modern demagogue be silenced. And may we do the work necessary as a nation to own our culpability, sharing with all peoples the onus of leadership and community going forward.

And I’m Out.

The Package

Disc 1:

  • The Feature Film (191 Minutes) Restored by Patrick Stanbury With the Original Joseph Carl Briel Score, conducted by John Lanchbery in Both 5.1 and 2.0 Audio
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Prologue D.W. Griffith in conversation with Walter Huston, star of his 1930 sound film Abraham Lincoln.
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Intermission and Introduction to Act 2 Huston recites sections from Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People.

Disc 2:

  • Outtakes and Original Camera Tests
  • Stills and Collections Gallery
  • Silent Feature: The Coward (1915 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Reginald Barker)
  • Silent Short: The Rose of Kentucky (1911 ~ Directed by D.W. Griffith)
  • Silent Short: Stolen Glory (1912 ~ Directed by Mack Sennett)
  • Silent Short: The Drummer of the 8th Original Edit, The Drummer of the 8th 2015 Re-Edit (1913 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Jay Hunt)
  • The Birth of a Nation Score Recording Sessions in 5.1 Audio
  • D.W. Griffith on Lux Radio Theater with Cecil B. DeMille
  • The Birth of a Nation: The Legacy Directed, Written and Edited by John McCarty
  • The Clansman: From Stage to Screen Directed and Edited by Daniel Griffith
  • Text Essay: We Can Never Censor the Past by Kevin Brownlow

The Birth Of A Nation is now available on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time

Previous post Make it a Double: SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY & IN THE LAND OF WOMEN
Next post Criterion Review: GRADUATION