Revered and Reviled: D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’

ByEric M. Armstrong -- Published on Feb 26th, 2010 and filed under Essays, Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

“We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” — [Opening title card]

David Wark “D.W.” Griffith’s controversial 1915 masterpiece, “The Birth of a Nation,” occupies, on some level, similar stature in film scholarship as its subject matter does in American history.  Like slavery’s vile stain on the memoirs of a constitutionally egalitarian nation, Griffith’s ode to Anglo supremacy and the plight of the White South represents the worst of artistic cinema through racist, exploitative, historical revisionism.  Both film and subject are reviled, rightly so, for their unforgivable turpitudes.  Of course no singular work of art can be equated in its comparatively limited impact to one of the world’s great sins — subjugating and dehumanizing an entire people, stripping them of their unalienable human rights.  But even as D.W. Griffith’s explicitly anti-African American work, contrary to its title card, bears the stench of residing on the wrong side of history, “The Birth of a Nation” is as revered as it is reviled.  Its unparalleled innovation and audacity, technically and narratively, coupled with its unprecedented cultural impact, makes it perhaps the single most important film ever made.

The epic “Birth,” the longest film ever at the time of its release at over three hours, adapts Thomas Dixon’s novel and play “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” chronicling the rising racial, economic, political and geographic tensions leading up to and including the Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, and the tumultuous Southern Reconstruction period that was the genesis of the Ku Klux Klan.  The dramatic saga of two star-crossed families hewn asunder by the bloodiest of America’s wars, the Camerons from South Carolina, and the Stoneman’s from an unnamed North, anchors the narrative.

The first half of the film, while treating both families as ostensible equals (with the exception of the later demonized Austin Stoneman, a proxy for real-life abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens) quickly tasks itself with painting the pre-Civil War American South as victims of a shamelessly cruel and lawless North.  A black militia ransacks the Cameron estate only to be vanquished by heroic Confederate soldiers.  The eldest and noble Cameron boy, Ben, is wounded as he does battle with the unreasonable and savage North and receives the affectionate nickname, “the Little Colonel,” for his heroism.  Griffith’s picture even has the audacity to claim known abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln, as a champion of the Confederacy’s cause who would have been sympathetic to the South during Reconstruction had he not been assassinated at Ford’s Theater.  Instead, “Birth” argues that with his cowardly act, assassin John Wilkes Booth, paved the way for Stoneman and his reviled “mulatto” understudy, Silas Lynch, to inflict all manner of unjust punishments on the South.  It is upon these premises of a virtuous and heroic Confederacy molested by a radical, unscrupulous North that Griffith constructs his support for a natural and inevitable rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the film’s latter half.

Dixon’s seething racism, to which he devoted his life to publicly satiating, is afforded particular permissibility in the film’s second half through the a lens of a radically altered Reconstruction era.  Where the assumed inferiority and lasciviousness of blacks was only hinted at in part one, part two of the saga provides Dixon and Griffith ample material with which to indict the newly empowered populace in the wake of the Confederacy’s defeat.  Black soldiers are shown defiantly parading through the streets, disrupting the peace with deplorable fervor and even committing voter fraud, stuffing ballot boxes while white citizens are turned away.  It is in response to these insufferable injustices that Confederate hero, Ben Cameron, devises the Ku Klux Klan, a righteous response to the evils of a freed rabble of base and unwieldy slaves.

The film’s final third becomes so embarrassingly repulsive that it has forever tainted Griffith’s legacy as one of unfettered bigotry.  Upon its release, “Birth” sparked a national protest, drawing the ire of the newly formed NAACP and literally triggering riots in nearly every major city in which it screened.  It was deemed so offensive that Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver and Minneapolis, among others, banned it outright. Yet, despite its vile message and unmitigated rejection by entire regions of the country, Griffith’s 190-minute silent spectacle became the most profitable film in history, a title it held for a staggering 22 years, well into the era of the “talkie.”

Given the film’s astonishing success, one might draw the conclusion that the wretched blood of racism was still coursing through America’s veins like a raging river a mere half-century after Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation.  Undoubtedly, but the film’s subject matter likely had little to do with its success.  The awfulness of its message can be matched only by the genius of its production.  The unchallenged master of his craft, D.W. Griffith is single-handedly responsible for codifying the language of cinema and shattering the world’s notions of what a film could be.  Griffith invented an impressive array of shooting, editing and narrative techniques that gave birth to cinema as we know it today.  His innovation in alternating close-ups and long-shots from varying angles for emphasis, implementing deep focus, jump-cuts, refining tracking shots and color tinting, and engineering emotional responses through calculated editing techniques, i.e., more dramatic scenes contain more cuts, and his unique employment of “iris shots” to concentrate focus on a particular area of a shot, and back-and-forth quick-cuts to imply the simultaneous occurrence of separate events, combined to create an artistic cinematic experience unlike any audiences had ever seen.  Griffith didn’t invent all of these techniques, but “Birth” was the first time they had all been used in the same film to create a cohesive narrative — a feat he accomplished in only nine weeks with a single camera and two lenses.

Filmmaker and historian, Kevin Brownlow, described Griffith as, “the only director in America creative enough to be called a genius.” Few silent-era film scholars would disagree.  But still in question in some circles, remarkably, is whether Griffith’s work is sufficient to indict him as a racist.  So ingrained were his prejudices as a 19th century Kentucky native that he was genuinely oblivious to his film’s disquieting moral construct.  Apparently horrified upon finally understanding the terrible implications and effects of “Birth,” Griffith attempted to atone for his sins with his next film, 1916’s “Intolerance,” which portrays blacks in a positive light, and is regarded as a landmark film in its own right.  Though, however sincere he may have been, few observers were convinced, or at least willing to forgive the damage caused by “Birth.”

The Director’s Guild of America, which established the D.W. Griffith Award in 1953 with the aim to honor only the most accomplished filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cecil B. DeMille, went so far as to strip the award of Griffith’s namesake in 1999 explaining that the director “helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.”  This decision raises all kinds of ethical questions.  Can we still appreciate talented artists of the past that don’t conform to modern ideals?  Is it ethical to retroactively apply our morals to them?  Should Griffith be held to the same standards of today?  Is it okay to overlook Griffith’s unprecedented contributions to the art form because of inherent prejudices?  Should the film still be regarded as a masterpiece despite its disgraceful thesis?  Should art be fettered by specific moral constructs?  And if so, who decides what these are and when does art lose its right to be called art?

Some have even suggested that the sins of “Birth” should eliminate it from scholarly discussions of history’s ‘great films,’ arguing that “Intolerance” is Griffith’s true masterpiece, offering as much, if not more, to the birth of cinema as an art form than its predecessor without the stain of racism.  This argument is not without merit, however, it implies that skating an honest examination of history because we have condemned moral relativism in modern society is justified in our quest for universal equality and progress.  No, we must accept “The Birth of a Nation” in all its magnificence and repugnance.  It is as much a part of the fabric of cinema history as its subject is in the annals of America.  For better or worse, every film made since owes a great debt to D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation,” revered as it is reviled.

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