The Birth of A Nation (1915) 2 Stars
U.S. (D.W. Griffith & Epoch) 190m Silent BW
Director: D.W. Griffith
Producer: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: Frank E. Woods, D.W. Griffith, from the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the novel The Leopard’s Spots, and the play The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
Photography: G.W. Bitzer
Music: Joseph Carl Breil, D.W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, George Beranger
To describe ‘The Birth of A Nation’ in one word would be simple: racist. Especially in the second half of the three hour KKK glorifying monster, black people are depicted as animalistic, lazy, violent and as a blight to be dealt with. This is done through scenes such as the attempted rape and eventual manslaughter of a young white girl (for which the perpetrator the ‘evil Gus’ is hunted down and lynched), or a courtroom made up of black people who seem to be eating drinking and generally embodying the seven deadly sins. The film seemingly strives to make the viewer side with the white supremacists through any means necessary, so that at the climax of the film we are rooting for the KKK to come and ‘save the day’. Certain cinemas and cities banned the film due to its racist content, yet some people reacted in the opposite way: such as a spate of white on black murders, and potentially the sparking of the 2nd KKK era.
However, one must attempt to look past the racism of the film and discuss its other elements. I would argue that, unlike many of its predecessors who took their inspiration from theatre, this film seems to draw from, mainly Russian, novels; namely ‘War and Peace’. This is more true of the first half of the film than the second (in which it descends into racist propaganda), yet even the fact that it is divided into parts alludes greatly to ‘The Novel’. A fault with the film is its silence: with a number of films of the era the lack of speech isn’t a problem, unfortunately this film fails in that respect. We are subjected to long scenes of dialogue, often little expressive movement and few to no title screens to aid us.
This film has been credited by many as ‘the greatest film of all time’: the only reasons I could find for saying this would be firstly if I was a racist, and secondly for how influential this film has been within the industry; this, being one of the few good features of the film I have found, is potentially rather important and is the sole reason for it not getting 0 stars. If one were to strip this film down purely to its cinematography and general plot development, then it would be easily relatable to many successful films which followed it. The malicious presentation of John Wilkes Booth given through masterful camerawork and lighting; furthermore the tension created throughout the second part climaxing when the ‘good guys’ save the day and the lovers unite, is one of the most widely used storylines of all time.
To conclude, if it weren’t for the films severely racial tendencies and lack of speech; it would in fact be one of the greatest films of all time due to its massive influence over cinema since in both plot development and cinematography. It is simply a shame that its subject matter also inspired such abuse and hatred of the racial manner.