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At 100, 'Birth Of A Nation's' Legacy Is Still One Of Racism And Technical Artistry

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Library of Congress
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A still from 'The Birth Of A Nation'

A hundred years ago, March 1915, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, opened in New York. It ran 165 minutes. At the time, it was by far the longest American movie, the first epic, and the first great American film.  Movies were immature when Griffith started in 1908. In seven years he helped them become an art.

The Birth of a Nation is simultaneously a magnificent work of cinema and a reprehensible movie. There's no reconciling the two.

Films were edited before Griffith, but he's the one who realized the dynamic possibilities of editing. He created the pattern of establishing shot, medium shot, closeup. Griffith discovered how to show two actions taking place at the same time in different locations -- it's called cross-cutting. Then Griffith figured out the chase. One character in trouble, another coming to the rescue; the film goes from one to the other, the shots get shorter, the excitement grows and the audience wonders, "Will he save the day?"

It's a pattern that's still fundamental to filmmaking.

Griffith realized that through editing he could create a fictional geography where none existed. A shot of a river actually in Vermont could be joined to a shot of Niagara Falls, and the audience would think the river led to the falls, and that the young woman on the ice floe was in mortal danger.

The Birth of a Nation is about the Civil War and then Reconstruction in the South. Griffith's battle scenes show a stunning organization of cinematic space, a mastery of dark spaces and light spaces in a single shot, spaces of action and spaces of calm. In the story, one family are northern abolitionists and the other are South Carolina plantation and slave owners; Griffith unites them through romance, and weaves all these events into a grand tapestry of human emotion.

Griffith's sympathies though are with the slave-owners.

His picture of African-Americans is that they were happy and well-suited to be slaves. They smile as they labor in the cotton fields, or serve the South Carolina family in their plantation home. When the slaves are freed, they become a roiling incoherent mob. Union soldiers and carpetbaggers help the ex-slaves rig the elections, but such beings prove themselves unfit for freedom. When they take over the South Carolina legislature, they put their feet on the desks, get drunk and act like goons, incapable of democracy.

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Credit Public Domain
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'The Birth Of A Nation' theatrical release poster, from the Chronicle of the Cinema. (London: Dorling Kindersley), p. 111.

Worst of all, Griffith's black men can't wait to go after white women. One young white southern belle bravely leaps from a cliff to her death to avoid being taken by a freed slave. Another must be rescued at the very last moment. The rescuers are the well-armed, disciplined, orderly, patriotic and heroic Ku Klux Klan.

Griffith was a brilliant maker of melodramas. We Americans tend to put all of our cultural conflicts about race into melodramatic stories of innocent people suffering, which lead the audience to feel deep sympathy. The first great racial melodrama was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which convinced many white people, at least in the North, in the 1840s and afterward, that slavery was terrible and inhumane -- because they wept at the misery of the oppressed Uncle Tom.

The Birth of a Nation flipped the paradigm and got many whites in the North to forget about the horror of slavery and see African-American human beings as predatory and dangerous. President Woodrow Wilson said of the movie, "It is like writing history with lightning," which tells you about a generally unpublicized side of Woodrow Wilson.

The "writing with lightning" part is dead on; the "history" part is baloney.

The Birth of a Nation is a critical artifact of a disgraceful aspect of American history. There's no getting away from it. It's an important film for that reason and also because it brought into the world the proof that film can be great art.

There's no getting away from that, either.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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