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.