Take 39: The Birth of a Nation
Disclaimer: this film is racist propaganda, and my words are an inadequate attempt at exploring the impact of its release on cinema and race in America. Given the choice, I would prefer for readers to hear directly from Black commentators on the piece. Here are some I found enlightening:
- Ava Duvernay, 13th (Netflix)
- Wesley Morris The New Black Power (NYT)
- “Spike Lee takes on the Klan” (NYT)
I struggled with whether or not to watch this film. I revived this project in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and am writing this piece about two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, which resulted in the largest civil rights protest of my lifetime. Among the many goals of the protests, demonstrators shone a light on the damage that antebellum pride has had on modern America, leading to calls to eradicate pre-Civil War vestiges from our governing body and cultural sensibilities. At the same time, the very newly released streaming platform HBO Max pulled Gone With the Wind due to its racial insensitivity, which renewed the debate regarding the role that film’s with historically racist tropes have in the contemporary national consciousness. After much debate, and reading input from some of our great commentators on race in the 21st century, I decided to proceed with viewing a bootlegged version of the controversial propaganda piece. I made the decision after determining that we cannot learn from the mistakes and travesties of the past if we edit them out of present.
The Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith and released in 1915 is racist propaganda, full stop. The film is justified over decades, and included on this list of great works, because of what it did to push the medium forward. Griffith’s ability to create scenes and plot lines over the course of 3.25 hours used new techniques that he developed, and which still inform the way we watch movies today. Thus, many critics treat the content as if it were a necessary evil — a regrettable but pivotal touch point in the history of cinema that can be justified because of how much value it added to the art form.
I’m less comfortable with this assertion. I can admit that Griffith made strides by using the cross cutting technique and that the war scenes are evocative, and as close to a first hand visual representation of the Civil War as we’re likely to ever see. Part one of the film does a commendable job of showing how a house divided against itself failed to stand — that Northerners and Southerners who hosted each other prior to the war were forced to view the other as an enemy on the battlefield. The mental and emotional toll of that transition is captured dutifully, and the war scenes interspersed throughout illustrate Griffith’s deft technical skill that manages to marry the horrors of the battlefield with the emotional consequences of the home front.
What Griffith does, which had never been done before, is harness the full power of the film. He successfully crafts fully developed (white) characters and provokes the viewers sensibilities with visceral and disturbing imagery. There are many examples of films that have shifted popular opinion toward more acceptance of people unlike themselves, a deeper sense of justice, for instance Philadelphia, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Boys Don’t Cry. What this film shows is that that knife cuts both ways, and that malicious amoral philosophies can also enrapture a malleable audience.
In this case, the power of film was responsible for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the creation of the burning cross symbol. There were protests in Boston and reports of “near riots” across the country from those outraged by the blatant racism. In the movie, when the Klan is first forming, the Little Colonel hides his robes like a superhero hides his spandex. When they gather and storm through the town, it is reminiscent of the cowboy gangs rushing in to vanquish foes invading small frontier towns. The sequences and music and chase scenes have been passed through the decades, and are shockingly persuasive mechanisms for denoting who is good and who is bad in the eyes of the director.
In addition to showing how powerful a medium film can be, Griffith also creates a blueprint for manipulating sentiments in an effort to incite violence against a minority population by preying on not-so-deeply rooted fears and pride. I felt sick watching this movie, a familiar feeling that I’ve experienced often over the last four years of a Trump presidency. The formula is relatively simple: identify a majority audience who feels threatened by the thought of ceding dignity and respect to an oppressed minority. Then, display real historical events to create a shell of authenticity which will be quickly followed with lies - so that facts and prejudiced falsities are presented with equal conviction, making them difficult to discern. Paint the minority with stereotypical broad strokes, and the desired audience as the one true ordained hero.
The result is that the privileged majority transforms any guilt they might have felt as a result of their oppressing into seemingly righteous indignation at the oppressed demands for respect. The white fear Griffith leverages is that by treating Black Americans equally, they might be subjugated to the evils they perpetrated on others without consequence for years and years. This is a well worn template that will be reused again and again by dictatorial authorities across the world.
I keep imagining what it would feel like if this was the first movie you ever saw AND it was the first movie in America that was ever really a movie as we now understand them. There is a widely told myth of the first screenings of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat casued the audience to scream and dodge the oncoming steam engine. Even if it’s not true, it’s certainly believable. Griffith shows how much influence the people who wield the power of a camera possess, and that it’s a force which can be used for evil as much as for good — and those two poles may be inverted by the creators with broadest reach. As film fans, we must accept this work as a piece of the legacy of racial injustice in the beloved art form, which haunts us to this day and will continue to do so. Like slavery in America, The Birth of a Nation represents cinema’s original sin. It can’t be ignored so it must be learned from and actively corrected in our future.