This is a complex film to review, it is the putting aside the dislike of subject to admire the technicality, and an putting aside the brilliant technical achievements to critically view the abhorrent subject of racism.
A brief history of the film. The film was made 50 years after the Civil war ended. The Civil war lasted from 1861 to 1865, a mere 4 years. By 1880 all the civil rights that had been given to the black people had been stripped by the reestablished white supremic governments. The film was a creation of D.W. Griffith, who was the son of a Confederate Colonel. Jake Griffith died when his son David was only 10 years old. D.W. (David) built around the stories his father had told. His father’s stories had made such an impression they were etched upon D.W’s soul, his film was one of passion.
In 1901, author Thomas Dixon released a book entitled the Clansman, the book was a piece of Southern bias and devotion to the ideal of white supremacy. It was this book that was adapted for the film Birth of a Nation. When Dixon and Griffith began their collaboration, Thomas Dixon chose to rekindle his acquaintance with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had been a former classmate of Dixon’s at Johns Hopkins, and was currently President of the United States. Wilson himself was a white supremacist, he supported Jim Crow legislation and had written a book of his own, entitled History of the American People. Wilson had published under the guise of being a Sociologist. History of the American people was his 4th work and was 5 volumes long. Passages of Wilson’s book became placards in the silent film, introducing each segment and loaning legitimacy to the film. Wilson had just lost his wife when the film was finished, he didn’t feel it dignified to attend the premiere, so the film was shown in the White House. It was the first time a film had been screened there.
The NAACP was founded in 1909 and had active Chapters in New York, and Chicago. The Film Birth of a Nation had it’s premiere on February 8, 1915 in New York. The NAACP had been trying to get it removed, then censored, but was unable to stop or detain it’s progress. The film opened up to filled movie theaters across the country and had overwhelming success.
This film is extremely offensive, it set the stereotypes of African American’s, that still ashamedly still exist to this day. We see white actors dressed in black-face for all the speaking and prominent roles. In the film the blacks and northerners are portrayed as either evil or bumpkins. There is a caste system between house hold workers, the lighter skinned have dominance over the darker skinned. The portrayal of mixed, or mullato as is titled in this film, are also played by white actors, and show the rise to political office.
The black people are portrayed as Shuckin’ & Jivin’ miscreants who dominate the poor white folk. They are chickin’ eating, boozin’ refuse that pick their bare feet in the middle of the senate. Those who are not ignorant, are conniving, manipulative, rapists. As soldiers in their own regiment are shown as cowards and deserters. They break into peoples homes to ransack, destroy and burn down with the whites still in them. I guess we add murders to the ongoing list. Black men salivate and leer at the white women, as do the white northern scum.
Opposite is the good Christian, bible reading, sophisticates of the South. They are the epitome of the genteel folk. They are the downtrodden, the victims of the Civil War. The rise of the black man has put them at a serious disadvantage. It takes the Calvary of Clansman to free them from the bondage of black supremacy. This film’s sole purpose was to frighten white Americans into believing their existence was at stake. It was a propaganda piece to win over the masses to the Klu Klux Klan and their practice of lynching black Americans. To prevent any and all notion that black people could be trusted. The thought a that a mixing of race would be a bad thing. At the end of the film we read the following statement “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.” Today words like that terrify most of us. We in some ways may have traversed far from the sentiments of those days. Then again have we?
The sentiment of Hitler’s World War didn’t reach much farther into a unified world then what had come before. 1909 to 1939 and the shit of Aryan pure white race had been still a pile high and still being shoveled to the masses as truth. Because America was against Hitler, we pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves “were not racists.” It took from 1945 to the 1960’s until things actually began to turn. Here we are in 2016 and we still see carry over that has followed into today’s films. The Blaxploitation films are still being made, Soul Plane (2004). There are the films where black people need rescuing, as in the film The Blind Side (2009). The films with, as Spike Lee named it the “Magic Negro” in the film The Green Mile (1999). When not presented in those kindly but subservient roles, Black people are portrayed as thugs, the gang bangers, drug pushers or addicts, murderers and rapists. Not much has changed in the past 100 years.
What is positive about this film is the trailblazing it did for film as a whole. D.W. Griffith may have been a racist, but he also was a visionaire. Cinema was a relatively new art form, there had been no standards prior to this film. It was the first at many things, it became the standard in filmmaking. This film was three hours long, it was a feature film, it was an epic film. The sets were monumental, the cast of extras was gigantic. Movie scenes up to this point had been static. D.W. Griffith introduced tracking with a dolly, panning, long shots (establishing shots), multiple angle shots, panoramic shots, cameos, close-ups, superimposing an image over the other, crosscutting, fades and vignettes as transitions. He introduced night photography using magnesium flares, and outdoor landscapes. He used color tinting was used as a psychological device (red during the war scenes to denote our need to survive and to take action). The choice of music to accompany each scene (Wagner’s Ride of the Valkaries during the Klan’s ride to the rescue). It was also the first time an original score was written for a film. There was the use of ornate costumes of a period piece. He put action and excitement to what previously had been a novel medium of moving pictures. This film was a complete fleshed out script that had plot, theme, and story. It was a masterpiece to be used as a template for film through the history of cinema.