#3. The Birth of a Nation (1915)

birth-of-a-nation-poster-1I’ve been meaning to watch The Birth of a Nation since I was in high school, and saw that it was featured on a show called Movies That Shook the World, but, seeing as this probably isn’t a movie I’ll sit through more than once or twice in my lifetime, I think it’s better that I waited to see it until I was old enough (if that’s what I am now, at 25) to register and appreciate the racist component, feel that disgust, but to then be able to laugh at some of it too, mock the craziness, because to watch this absolutely batshit movie in the 21st century, and then reward its mania with a serious critique, feels a bit like validating it. I also cringe to imagine how I might have reacted to this in high school because I frankly didn’t think, in 2008 or thereabouts, that race was still an issue in America. I actually remember going to see Iron Man with my girlfriend at the time and two of my best friends and we were sitting in like the third row before the movie started, talking about Michael Jackson, when somebody mentioned “Black or White,” his single from 1991, and I said something like, “It’s a little late for him to be acting like race is still a thing.” Everybody in attendance balked at my idiocy.

I’m writing this in August 2016 and it’s obvious now, with all the election stuff going on, that the agenda being pushed by Birth of a Nation isn’t dead. Probably isn’t even all that diminished. I wanna say that it seems so silly on screen here, especially toward the film’s final act, that it’s hard to take seriously – but I can see how that might be a risky position to take. That treating the hatred and fear depicted in this movie as though it were too stupid to even bother denouncing is exactly the sort of reaction that might let its influence slip through the cracks.

But as concerns the technical aspect, the actual filmmaking, Birth of a Nation is impressive. I mean it’s a hundred years old so it’s fucking boring in parts, obviously, but aside from the remarkable sprawl of its battle scenes (which are somehow kinda boring) there are also several fifteen- or twenty-minute segments that work really well. Especially a set piece in the middle, at Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln (spoiler) gets shot. Then there’s this scene in the film’s last hour that I thought was exciting, where a white actor in blackface is chasing a white woman through a wooded area with the intention of raping her – I’m also reluctant to admit that I found it exciting, however, because the scene is meant to illustrate the movie’s conviction that black men are all criminals and deviants.

Birth of a Nation is divided into two ninety-minute halves, the first one having to do with the Civil War and the second with Reconstruction. The first half, while rife with actors in blackface and tons of racist images and remarks, is mostly just about the horrors of war. It isn’t until the second half of this three-hour movie that things get REALLY racist.

birth-of-a-nation-intertitle-poetic
An intertitle that I think demonstrates some of the artistry strewn among the ugliness.

Although maybe that’s fucked up of me to think? To act like racism is a continuum and that the depiction of a minority being, say, servile and unintelligent is any more or less racist than suggesting that they’re bloodthirsty rapists. I guess what I mean is that the movie’s racism, between the first and second halves of the movie, steps not from the background to the foreground but rather from the foreground into, like, your mouth.

It’s a fucked up movie whose bigotry is dressed up with lots of money and talent. There were things I found beautiful and others I found appalling. It’s a tough piece of film history to contend with and I know, for example, that Turner Classic Movies was conflicted this year about how to observe it’s hundredth anniversary. Because it’s definitely something to contend with. There’s no service done in pretending it doesn’t exist. I can see, however, the argument for disavowing its artistry in light of its agenda.

 

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5 comments

  • Well said. I’m 25 as well and I saw this movie in a film class in high school about 10 years ago. I’m from a small town in Canada (AKA pretty much all white) so I had no real experience with racism, but I’m glad to say that it was still clear to me and my classmates that this movie is batshit. The cherry being (spoilers) Jesus appearing to congratulate the KKK at the end. I mean this is a movie so racist that even people in 1915 were telling Griffith to cool it. Anyway, nice review and I look forward to reading more as you go along. Good luck!

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    • I’ve actually wondered about this in the past: whether the U.S.’s issues with race, when they manifest in art & entertainment, seem totally alienating or strange to people from other countries where it isn’t such an issue. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Agreed: Birth of a Nation is a batshit movie but, in a complicated way, worth watching.

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