On the Complicated Legacy of “The Birth of a Nation”

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Today is the anniversary of the world premiere of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 mixed-up masterpiece The Birth of a Nation.

This film a complicated bit of baggage to unpack. Look at that poster; it depicts the movie’s hero, a Ku Klux Klansman, for God’s sake! Griffith’s treatment of African Americans in the film isn’t just thoughtless or ignorant; he goes well out of his way to be intentionally, hurtfully insulting to blacks, depicting them as ape-like buffoons and malevolent rapists, casting whites made up in blackface** to give the slanderous portrayals. Theatrical blackface was common but dying by then. Griffith’s attitudes were unfortunately still all-too prevalent. By the 1920s, thanks in large part to the inspiration of this film, the Klan was in a full-blown revival.

So the movie has a lot to answer for morally. The only thing that prevents anyone from condemning it without qualification is the degree to which its formal innovations influenced the rest of the film industry. You can quibble about who invented or first introduced this or that (close-ups, extreme long shots, irises, etc etc etc). In many or most cases it may well not have been Griffith. What cannot be denied is that this single film made a measurable impact. Everyone saw it and everyone copied it. After the release of this film, Hollywood films were not the same.

I spend a good bit of time on Griffith in Chain of Fools for that reason, for his influence was felt throughout the comedy world. He was the mentor and teacher of silent comedy’s founding impresario Mack Sennett; the influence of his melodramatic sentimentality can be keenly felt in Chaplin’s work; and Keaton produced several out-and-out Griffith homages, two of which (Our Hospitality and The General) specifically pay tribute to The Birth of a Nation. Much like certain problematic Shakespeare plays such as The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, it is if nothing else a cultural landmark that everyone should be conversant on, for both its virtues and its flaws.

For more on early film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

4 comments

  1. The theatre director Richard Foreman once equated the catharsis rush, which can bring one to tears or cheers, to a massive re-affirmation of ones own deeply held beliefs. This is no less true for “Birth of a Nation” in the American schema. The glorification of the KKK, as embarrassing as it seems now, as depicted in Griffith’s film is as quintessentially American in ideological tone as the collectivist agony of Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” montage deeply Russian. These American ideals of the underdog (the wronged Southerners and white women in general), the evils of Tyranny, and, to our chagrin, white supremacy are as alive today as ever, even if they are muted by our assumed present day sophistication. The centenary of this film also witnesses the popularity of McQueens’ 12 Years a Slave, which is hailed as a gripping look at the actuality of the peculiar institution. Yet 12 Years reaches for our heartstrings with a similar injustice (read underdog status) being done to a free black man of the North, he is kidnapped “unlawfully” into slavery. Funny thing is, I thought all black people were kidnapped into slavery.

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    • Well put, Irving — I’ve still got to see “12 years” but yeah…why is it more wrong if the victim was a free black? To think so seems to buy into the legitimacy of slavery in a way on some level. (Similarly, all of those “passing” tragedies: “The Octoroon”, “Pinkie”, “Imitation of Life”, “Showboat”…where the injustice is supposed to be worse because the victim is part white!)

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  2. On the fiftieth anniversary of its release, “Birth of a Nation” received a special screening at the MOMA, (several showings on one day, if memory serves) and I was lucky enough to get to see it (accompanied by the legendary Arthur Kleiner, MOMA’s house pianist…)
    I will never forget my astonishment at hearing the cheers–not just applause, but cheers! Full-throated, lusty cheers as one might hear from kids watching Roy Rogers take out the bad guys!–from a sophisticated (and, I assume, mostly pro-civil rights) audience as the Klan rode to the rescue of Lillian Gish…
    And I understood the thrill–the catharsis–that prompted the outburst, for I too rooted for the heroine’s salvation…
    Spooky in the extreme–and a double-edged testimony to the power of this remarkable film (if not to film itself, viz. “Triumph of the Will”…)

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