There’s a bromide I often turn to after seeing a film I respected but didn’t love: “I’m glad it exists.” In other words, while I couldn’t surrender myself completely to the film, I admired enough about it to believe the world is a slightly better place with it available to the public. More than a few world-class masterpieces have fallen into this category for me, but not one has challenged the premise so thoroughly as a film released one hundred years ago this month: David Wark Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The three-hour silent epic is impressive in all creative facets — formally speaking, it’s still remarkably easy to watch a century later. But its content is not so easy to watch. The repugnance at this film’s core, because it is so powerfully expressed, can never be ignored or explained away. It stares back at us still, and we must know how to respond.
Blood on the Screen
The idea of movies as towering spectacle begins here. Nothing of this scope had yet been attempted in a medium that was still only twenty years old. The Birth of a Nation looks both to the past and the future. Released fifty years after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, it scrupulously recreates those events for a new kind of historical record. The old-fashioned melodrama of the film’s plot is brought to new life through film editing, combining different locations in unified propulsion, making characters’ thoughts visible. The screen can be filled with either a vast battle scene or a single human face. Griffith proved that cinema could be as versatile as an elephant’s trunk. There’s hardly been another film since that could match The Birth of a Nation for crowd-pleasing thrills and political anger, all in one package. (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the only rival that comes to mind.) And the portrayal of violence has not lost its effectiveness. Certainly when compared to the muzzled Production Code Era, the film’s deaths are startling in their physicality. The blood is right there on the screen.
The Birth of a Nation has an enthralling story, well-told. It’s perhaps the first of many thrilling war films to declare itself anti-war, and, sanctimony notwithstanding, the film renders an enormous conflict with harrowing intimacy. Two families stand in for the entire population of the North and South. The war breaks up both friendships and courtships between them. A young Confederate officer harbors a secret crush on Lillian Gish. (Who among us has never been there?) They meet when her brother asks her to tend to the officer’s wounds in a Northern hospital. Their differing perspectives on Reconstruction put the film’s second half into focus. Having Gish and Henry Walthall play the film’s central couple was a great idea. Gish’s gossamer presence is perfect for what the role demands of her: both ecstatic romance and helpless terror. As for Walthall, watch his eyes during the homecoming scene and tell me you still don’t think silent acting could be subtle. His character’s arc is intended to be at least faintly tragic: a loving man forced to kill even after the war is over, when circumstances drive him to become a masked avenger, not terribly unlike a Zorro or a Batman.
Treated Like a Plague
He becomes the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. When I first encountered this film, I imagined that its sins consisted of making the KKK the good guys and using white actors in blackface. Now I realize that these are merely symptoms of a more pervasive disease. The African-Americans in this film are treated like a plague. Everything they touch turns to chaos, from the voting booth to the legislature to the courts to the very homes of white Southerners. The story is filled with sinister mulattoes and brutish blacks. Only the loyal, happy slaves are shown in a good light (blacks are okay if and only if they make white people feel good about themselves). According to The Birth of a Nation, the seeds of the Civil War were first sown with the bringing of the first slaves to America. True enough, but the film blames the victims. It suggests that the war didn’t really end when the armies formally stopped fighting. The Union could only be restored when whites of the North and South could finally agree that the blacks needed to be brought to heel. Since they couldn’t vote without cheating, the KKK would need to “guard” the voting booth. Since they couldn’t live freely without raping white women, the KKK would need to strike the fear of God into them.
This was all controversial even then, to be sure. The NAACP, an organization that was only six years old at the time, organized protests. Censorship was still a local issue in 1915, so cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Denver banned the film outright. Elsewhere, however, it became a sensation. It’s hard to imagine now, but to some extent, this film reflected the beliefs of a sitting President of the United States. Woodrow Wilson even accorded it the unprecedented honor of a screening at the White House. The famous aperçu attributed to him (“history written with lightning”) is a matter of historical dispute, but the film is part of his legacy. According to an introduction to the film on the Kino Blu-ray, as recently as 1930 The Birth of a Nation was widely touted as the greatest film ever made. A hundred years later, our culture has changed. Movies like Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma exist in part as a long-awaited antidote to the beliefs espoused in Griffith’s film. Securing the right to vote has finally led all the way to our nation’s first African-American president, a reality that was unthinkable in Griffith’s world.
I’m glad this movie exists because, were these things not seared onto celluloid, it would be a lot easier to treat them as ancient history. They’re not. Lillian Gish’s longevity is something I think about often. She was in a movie with Bette Davis the same year I was born. And despite all that’s happened in a hundred years, the nation born in Griffith’s film has not yet died. It lives on in the belief that the Confederacy was a valiant “lost cause”; that the war was primarily about Washington seizing power from the Southern states; that reports of slavery’s evils have been exaggerated. When people display the Confederate flag, this is the legacy they’re celebrating, like it or not. If we censor or boycott a film like this, we’re sweeping our own cultural history under the rug. For that reason — and because, without the foundation laid by Griffith, lavish American epics from Gone with the Wind to Avatar wouldn’t exist — I’m thankful for The Birth of a Nation.