09 July, 2010

Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

There's something uncanny about seeing black people--in fact played by white people--holding their hands protectively over a ballot box while sad, defeated white people--also played by white people--walk away uncounted. In the reversal of The Birth of a Nation's denouement, when armed Klansmen on horseback prevent these same black people from exiting their homes on election day and making it to the polling centers, we at least have the sense that we're finally seeing a true approximation of history. What's scary is that we're supposed to be cheering at this return to "the way things should be" or "the way things always have been."

The Birth of a Nation is a frightened and frightening, unapologetic, and inaccurate defense of slavery, racism, and segregation, coupled with a heartfelt condemnation of war, which ironically was one of the only things that helped put an end to slavery in the United States. They say history is written by the victors, yet D.W. Griffith had the technical ingenuity and cinematic ambition to write his own grandiose account of history before the victors could. It's a scary and difficult thing to admit that you were wrong, even after defeat. Much easier is proving that you were right all along and that you should've won. The Birth of a Nation depicts Southern plantation owners as quaint, peaceful people with modest ambitions who participate in slavery because it fittingly supports the moral order of the cosmos: civilized white people making the important decisions while supporting the impulsive, primitive black people who wouldn't even know how to support themselves without white structure. In the Civil War itself, the Southern generals are courageous, fair, and heroic, and they only lose due to the dastardly tactics of the North. Reconstruction puts animals in charge of men, and the insistence that racism is a false doctrine encourages animals to try to rape ladies. How much better everything would be if those power-hungry, foolish Northerners would've just minded their own business!

When Barack Obama was running for the presidency and was likely to win, my 87-year-old Georgian grandfather asked me to alleviate his fears about a black man being in charge of the white people, to assure him that the black man, when the reins were finally changed, wouldn't retaliate with all the oppression and violence that had been inflicted on his kind in the past two centuries. Underlying this fear wasn't the belief that black people were savage animals but that they were too savagely human, that they would take their revenge when finally given the chance, that an eye would at long last be taken for an eye, and my grandfather had never expected to lose an eye and certainly didn't want to lose one now. It's frightening to see that some of the same fear of reprisal and unwillingness to apologize that inspired a 95-year-old movie still exists today.

It's common practice to praise D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation for its technical innovation and cinematic milestones rather than its naive, propagandistic message and blatant racism. I'm not in the habit of judging artistic merit by its historical importance, however--not unless it still manages to awe after history has passed. The Birth of a Nation horrifies but does not awe. Characterization is simple, the story is naive, the title card writing is immature, and the film stretches on much too long. Some scenes are genuinely executed in a heartfelt, touching manner--such as the grizzled hospital orderly in the background who snatches quick, loving looks at a pretty, young visitor while pretending to be disinterested, or the young, war-torn yet optimistic sister who fashions a primitive ballgown out of raw cotton in order to make her brother feel happy and at home upon his return from war, a "ballgown" which only emphasizes their fallen position yet still manages to crack a smile across his tortured face. Such scenes exist in frequent numbers in the over three hours of The Birth of a Nation, yet they are overshadowed by the racist proclamations that consistently steal the show. Should I be impressed that a scene in which "black" politicians who have taken over the senate floor and turned it into a pigsty cheer in exaltation while passing a law that allows them to have sex with white women actually inspires in me the disgust that Griffith intended? No, because that nauseating discomfort is ironic, inspired more by the surreal blackface and the ridiculous, racist historical inaccuracy than anything Griffith actually intended. I find it funny that Griffith had to hire white people in order to make his black villains truly revolting.

That blackface helps the viewer to see The Birth of a Nation for what it really is, an epic fantasy with no basis in reality.

The Birth of a Nation is #133 on the TSPDT? list of the greatest films of all time. This gives The Birth of a Nation the distinction of being the highest rated movie based solely on its innovative use of jump cuts and close-ups.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
d: D.W. Griffith w: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods
(Lillian Gish, Mae Walsh, Henry Walthall, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann)
TSPDT?: #133

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