04 August 2008

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

d. D.W. Griffith / USA / 190 mins.

And so here we have the grandfather of feature-length cinema: epic and inventive and influential and stained with a vile stripe of unatonable racism.

No new ground can be broken in discussing D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. It's the elephant in the critic's room that everyone has talked about yet still tries to ignore. Watching Griffith's Civil War epic is to be put into a corner against your will, simultaneously asked to defend its technical achievements and denounce its repulsive, revisionist racial elements. The film is a battle of immutable forces – it's both embarrassing and extraordinary, both virtuosic and villainous.

Racism and racial ignorance in old movies tends to be forgiven, ignored, or brushed aside with a dash of, "That's the way they were, so what's the big deal?" Yet it does matter. Well-made stupidity is not an oxymoron and is not mutually exclusive. Racism aside (and make no mistake, evaluating a film on its ignorance is still valid form of criticism), we must stake out a middle ground and ask, taken for what it is, is it still a great movie?

The ultimate answer is: not by a long shot. The adjective "well-made" can only be applied to the strictest technical elements. The camerawork during the battle sequences is powerful and remarkably fluid, and the cuts are sharp throughout. Griffith also plays with light in ways that were wholly unique; the captured landscape is as haunting as the ghostly photography that came out of the war. But when the film is broken down into pacing, plot, characters, etc. – the hallmarks of any good movie – "well-made" doesn't even begin to describe The Birth of a Nation. At 190 bloated minutes, it's entirely too long (the second half containing the most egregious episodes of racism, too). Most of its characters are abstract and non-emotive (the result of a sagging story). Like Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, it is a film that has eclipsed its original intent (to entertain) and has become a stolid artifact of film history. Rendering a verdict might involve more a struggle if the film was consistently entertaining, tightly edited, and robust in its story.

The film still comes up in conversation, though, and I think the primary reason why the film continues to fascinate is its own brutal internal dichotomy. In order to be as technically innovative as he was, Griffith needed to be as detail-oriented as possible. There are shots that attempt to recreate scenes with unrivaled precision and exactness (Abraham Lincoln's assassination, for example). But when it comes to the film's approach to race, it is the categorical opposite of detail-oriented; its picture is painted with sweeping, inflammatory, and prejudiced strokes: white actors appear in blackface as barbarian caricatures; it endorses anti-miscegenation and pro-slavery positions; it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and is audacious enough to imply that the white supremacy hate group brought law and order to the post-war South. (The critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "[The film] was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.") Viewing the film you see these forces of innovation and bigotry dueling right in the celluloid as Robert Mitchum's "Love" and "Hate" knuckle tattoos battle for dominance in The Night of the Hunter. As with Leni Riefenstahl, we wonder how Griffith can be a filmmaker of such genius in one realm and be so ignorant in another.

The Birth of a Nation
is, in the end, mathematically not much of a masterpiece. Its innovation is outweighed by its problems. It's an important film to be sure (for both cinema and the twentieth century), but it's not one of the all-time best – it's not even the best film Griffith made. And yet, you really do owe to yourself to watch it once. What you come away with after that single viewing is enough material to argue about the tumultuous relationship between art's content and form for the rest of your life.


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