Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Birth of a Nation

One of the most famous and best films of the early silent era, The Birth of a Nation can be split into two distinct parts. The first part is a story of the American Civil War and features two families, The Stonemans from Pennsylvania and the Camerons from South Carolina. Early on the Stonemans are seen visiting their friends in the south and the beginnings of relationships occur between some of the younger members of the family. There is slight tension in the air though as the Civil War looms in the near future. Fast forward to the war and both families join their respective armies and in the end meet on the battlefield in an incredible battle scene. It is at about this time that the first overtly obvious racism crops up as a group of black militia ransack the Cameron home and search for white woman to abuse. This section ends with a fairly accurate depiction of the assassination of President Lincoln.

Part two, The Reconstruction begins with views of a battered and beaten south in which the formerly wealthy Cameron family has been reduced to rags and renting out rooms in their mansion. The head of the Stoneman family travels south with his protégé, a mixed race man called Lynch. With the help of black soldiers they turn white voters away from poll booths and create a landslide election win in which the South Carolina legislature is filled with black members. Lynch is elected as Governor General. With laws being passed which give blacks more rights and infringe on the rights of whites (intermarriage – the outrage!!) Ben Cameron forms an organisation called the Ku Klux Klan who band together to threaten and kill black men who attack white women.

The racism in this film is unbelievable. It’s so shocking to witness now in a world with a mixed race President the views and ideology of influential people just 97 years ago. Having said that, it still shocks me that the Civil Rights movement happened during my parent’s lifetime. Black men are characterised as lazy, drunk and sexually aggressive towards white women and willing to beat and murder anyone who gets in their way. What’s worse is that the majority of the black characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface. Perhaps the most damming statement is that the heroes of the film are the Ku Klux Klan who come to the rescue of an innocent women who is being held captive for ‘forced marriage’ by a mixed race man and then see off a band of black soldiers intent on murdering a family which includes women and children. A final scene of the Klan parading through town couldn’t help but remind me of the footage of victorious German troops parading through Paris in 1940. Griffith uses emotive language in the intertitles such as ‘Aryan birth right’ to further pursue his racist theme.   

Besides the racism another major talking point is that writer/director D.W. Griffith intersperses a documentary style of story telling with fictional narrative to fool the audience into believing everything they’re seeing. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln for instance is very similar to what actually happened, even down to John Wilkes Booth jumping from the balcony and shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis". Shortly after this though we see black soldiers stopping white people from voting and then black Congressmen drinking and putting their feet on the desks of the House. For an audience still new to film and in the days where news was slow to travel, many people must have believed what they were being shown and indeed it has been said that the film was partially responsible for the massive rise in KKK membership and it’s refounding in the 1920s. It is estimated that by 1925 the organisation contained 4-5 million members! That’s around 15% of the eligible population, another shocking and disgusting statistic.

Aside from the controversy that the film attracted it also attracted widespread critical acclaim on a technical level. Considering Charlie Chaplin was still making one or two reel comedies for Essanay in 1915 (Reviews Here) which lasted no more than half an hour, it is amazing that this film lasts a full 190 minutes (although I saw a 118 minute version). At the time it was the longest film in history. It was also the most financially successful film in history for 24 years until it was overtaken by Gone with the Wind in 1939. In terms of the film making D.W. Griffith introduced and adopted several remarkably modern techniques such as panning shots, a moving camera, split screen and fast cutting. It is also one of the first films to build up to a dramatic climax and had a score written specifically for it, something quite rare in 1915. A standout scene for me is the Civil War battle which is shot for a cliff high above the action. Hundreds of extras were used for the scene which still looks amazing to this day as the camera pans across the battlefield.

The cast which includes such actors as Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Miriam Cooper, George Siegmann, Walter Long and Robert Harron on the whole feel much more natural and real than their contemporaries. There is much less flailing of arms and knees bent out at right angles than in many films of the period. It all feels very natural. Joseph Henabery also makes a very good Abe Lincoln. Some of the acting isn't so great though and that's usually down to the fact that some actors were portraying caricatures of another race.

The Birth of a Nation is famous with just cause. It’s a wonderful technical masterpiece and it’s story although deeply troubling is gripping. I almost feel wrong for liking this film but I have to admit that on a procedural level at least it’s superb. Despite his politics D.W. Griffith knew how to make extremely good cinema.    


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