Saturday, February 7, 2015

Stubs – The Birth of a Nation (1915)


The Birth of a Nation aka The Clansman (1915) Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Waithall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Screenplay by Frank E. Woods (Scenario), Story arranged by D.W. Griffith. Based on the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon (New York, 1905) and his play of the same name (New York, 8 Jan 1906). Produced by D.W. Griffith. Run Time: 190 minutes original release. (187 minutes as viewed) U.S.  Black and White. Silent, Drama, Melodrama

In 2013, Trophy Unlocked celebrated the 100th anniversary of the production of the first feature film made in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (1914). In 2014, the centennial of the start of Charlie Chaplin's career with Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) and the release of the first feature length Hollywood comedy: Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).

For 2015, we look back at one of the most controversial films ever made on the 100th anniversary of its release, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film went into wide release on February 8, 1915.

If you only know the name D.W. Griffith from this film, you’re missing out on a lot. He was a major film director and is arguably one of the most influential filmmakers ever. He first became interested in writing for films and in 1907 brought a script to Edwin Porter, then a producer at Edison Studios. Though he turned down the script, Porter offered Griffith a role in the film Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908). Griffith later took a job as an actor at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, commonly known simply as Biograph. When the studio’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon grew ill and his son wasn’t able to fill his shoes, Biograph offered the job to the then 33 year old Griffith.

Griffith directed his first film The Adventures of Dollie (1908), a 12-minute short, and he would direct a total of 49 more before the end of the year. In 1909. he would direct nearly 150 and in 1910 about 100 more, including the first film shot in Hollywood, In Old California (1910). You could say he was the first filmmaker to see the advantages of shooting there. During his career at Biograph, Griffith would direct some very influential films, including The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), a 17-minute short that is credited not only as the first gangster film, but also for its use of follow focus.

But Griffith wanted to make longer films. He made one of the first feature films shot in the U.S., Judith of Bethulia (1914), but Biograph wasn’t really interested in long movies and their higher production costs, so Griffith left. Though the film was completed in 1913, Biograph delayed its release so they wouldn’t have to pay Griffith profit-sharing.

With his stock company of actors, which included Lillian Gish, Griffith formed Reliance-Majestic Studios with Harry Aiken, who had been the manager at Majestic. Reliance-Majestic was an autonomous unit under the Triangle Film Corporation, which included Thomas Ince and Keystone’s Mack Sennett. Triangle’s films were distributed through the Mutual Film Corporation. Griffith also took over Kinemacolor, a company with an early color-film process. Part of what he got with the Kinemacolor takeover were the rights to make a film based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novels The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots and the play written by Dixon based on them, The Clansman.

The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan, published in 1905, was the second book in a trilogy Dixon wrote about the KKK, which included The Leopard’s Spot (1902) and The Traitor (1907). The trilogy was written by Dixon as a message to Northerners to maintain racial segregation and was also credited with a revival of support for the KKK.The Klan was known for their violence against African-Americans during Reconstruction, following the Civil War.

Griffith, who was a Southern by birth and whose father fought for the Confederacy, has been labelled a racist for making the film. However, Griffith never espoused a belief in segregation or support for the Klan as anything more than an historical relic. According to Bret Wood, who produced the Griffith set for Kino, the director chose stories not for their political content but for their potential to thrill audiences.1 Wood also pointed out that a few years before making Birth of Nation, Griffith made the short, The Rose of Kentucky (1911), in which the Klan is shown as evil, attacking a white plantation owner who refuses to join their ranks. [I have no insights into Griffith's political beliefs and am not trying to support what may be perceived as his personal racist views.]

The cost of buying the film rights to the book, $10,000, was more than Griffith had. He could only afford $2,500. In exchange for money, Griffith gave Dixon a 25% interest in the picture. Even though Dixon was reluctant, his share in the runaway hit made him a very rich man as he earned several million dollars as a result.

Despite the scale of the film, Griffith’s budget was surprisingly small. It started at $40,000, less than a million in today’s dollars, but ended up at $112,000, which is equivalent to $2.1 million today. As a result, Griffith had to find additional capital for his film.

To hide the size of the budget, Griffith used smoke and explosions to hide the gaps in the battlefield scenes, for the Battle of Petersburg, which were shot in the San Fernando Valley, near where the current Universal Studios now stands. He also used a relatively small number of camera set ups, which also saved on costs. I’ve also read that some costumes were actual surplus uniforms from the War itself.

As a director, Griffith, who had been an actor himself, was known for treating each actor differently, giving them as much instruction as they needed. Griffith believed in rehearsals and camera tests prior to actually filming a scene. With an actress like Lillian Gish, with whom Griffith had worked with for several years, he gave her free rein to develop her character. With someone like Mae Marsh, he supposedly fed her each gesture throughout a scene.

The Birth of a Nation is told in two parts that were originally separated by an intermission, as this film was considered long in its day.

Prior to the start of the film, there is an introductory title card calling for "A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture." This was added to the film during it's second run by Griffith, added due to controversy and protests over the film's subject matter and political point of view. This title card does not appear on prints from the first run of the film.

                                                                                                                                
Part 1: Civil War of United States

We are introduced to two families, the Northern abolitionist, Stonemans, led by Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based on Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Stoneman has a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish), and two sons, Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton).

Juxtaposed to them are the Camerons, who live on their Piedmont, South Carolina cotton plantation with slaves. Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) and Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) have two daughters, Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper), and three sons, Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger) and Duke (Maxfield Stanley).

Despite their being opposites on the political spectrum, the families are old friends. The Stoneman brothers got to visit the Camerons on the verge of the War. Phil falls in love with Margaret, while Ben falls in love with a photo he finds of Elsie Stoneman. Tod and Duke are shown to be “chums”.

Northern abolitionists meet Southern slave owners when
Austin Stoneman's sons (l) visit the Cameron family (r)

While the film strives for historical recreations, or what the title cards call historical facsimilies, the war is played out largely off screen. We see President Abraham Lincoln signing a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers, but we don’t see much combat right away.

Following Bull Run, there is a ball held in Piedmont on the night prior to its young men joining the Confederate Army. Bonfires are lit outside as well. The Stoneman boys also join the army on the Union side.

The film then skips ahead two and a half years. By then, the tide has turned against the South. A black militia, under the leadership of a white Union officer, ransacks the Cameron house, taking or destroying anything of value they find and even setting the house on fire. The Cameron women, who are hiding in a basement, are rescued when Confederate soldiers arrive and rout the militia.

As the war continues, the younger Stoneman son and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Tod and Duke, who are reunited on the battlefield, die next to one another.

Pre-war "chums", Tod Stoneman (Robert Harron) and Duke Cameron
(Maxfield Stanley), die side by side on the battlefield.

Ben, who earns the nickname “The Little Colonel” after leading a heroic charge at the Battle of Petersburg, is wounded.

Ben (Henry B. Whathall), nicknamed "the Little Colonel", leads his men in the Battle of Petersburg.

This is the one battle that is shown in the film, as a representation of all battles. The action goes off to the horizon and is quite impressive with its scale.

The epic sweep of the Battle of Petersburg. Smoke is used to mask the number of combatants.

Meanwhile, Elsie Stoneman has started working as a nurse and Ben ends up under her care. While he’s recovering, Ben is told that he will be hanged for being a Confederate guerilla. Ben’s mother, who travels to Washington D.C. to tend to her son, is taken by Elsie to see President Lincoln, whom she persuades to pardon Ben. When Ben does return home later in the film, Piedmont is a ghost town.

Ben's mother (Josephine Crowell) pleads her son's amnesty
with President Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Hensbery).

There are a couple of other historical facsimilies in Part 1, including Lee’s surrender at the Appomattax Court House, with General Grant played by Howard Gaye and Lee by Donald Crisp.

Following this is the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. This is the longest of the facsimiles and the most detailed. John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) waits for the opportunity and bursts into the President’s box and shoots him before leaping to the stage below. All of this is witnessed by Elsie and her brother who are attending the play, Our American Cousin.

John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) about to assassinate President Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation.

With the President, who had been willing to welcome the South back into the fold, now dead, radical congressmen, like Austin Stoneman, become determined to punish the South. Setting us up for Part 2.

One thing I noticed during Part 1 is Griffith’s use of title cards. While in many silent films they are used to fill in for the dialogue we would expect to hear, Griffith uses them almost exclusively to set up a scene or a historical fact, but the dialogue between characters is rarely spelled out, only inferred. Since no one ever addresses anyone by name, it makes it somewhat difficult to know character names.

The battle scene, which the film is known for, is spectacular, especially given the depth of field, which some combatants hundreds of yards away from the camera set up and out of ear shot of Griffith. To get around this, Griffith employed assistant directors who were down in the trenches, directing their small groups of actors, the way a commanding officer might the troops in his charge.

There is another similar shot of Sherman’s Army marching through the South. You can see the long columns of soldiers with the house they’ve set on fire to one side and the family they’ve displaced watching from high up the hill helpless on the other.

Tinted film is used, and it really depends on the state of restoration of the version you watch as to how much is seen. While I know that the tinting is used for effect, blue for night and red for fire, I think the use obfuscates the film images and doesn’t really seem necessary to the film, though I’m sure there was an effect Griffith was going for.

The film uses tinting, such as blue for night. Depending on the quality of the print, this tinting can obfuscate the visuals.

The pacing is slow, especially by modern standards. Takes are longer and without words, the actors have to be more exaggerated physically. It’s hard to judge acting from this era, as they are most likely performing what was expected at the time, but what we view now as melodramatic and overacting. But you can see a real difference in a relatively restrained performance by Lillian Gish and a more exaggerated one from Mae Marsh.

Blacks in the South are depicted as being relatively happy with their lives as slaves. When the Stoneman’s come to visit the Camerons, the slaves are shown dancing and when the Piedmont boys join the Confederate Army, the slaves are there cheering them on. While I can’t say for sure, many if not all the blacks depicted in the film are really white actors in blackface makeup.

Part 2: Reconstruction

With Lincoln dead, there is a power vacuum in Washington D.C. and Stoneman steps in. He sends his mulatto protégé Silas Lynch (George Siegmann in blackface) ahead and Lynch sets up operations in Piedmont. We’re shown how much things have changed as black occupation soldiers parading through the streets and pushing white residents, like the Camerons, aside on the sidewalks. Lynch makes a point of confronting Ben, who is momentarily prevented from leaving his own house by passing soldiers, telling him pointedly that the black soldiers have as much rights as he does. Ben will not forgive nor forget this.


Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) being introduced to Ben by Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis).
 Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) looks on as Ben refuses to shake Lynch's hand.

Health concerns send Stoneman south as well and he heads to South Carolina in 1871 to observe the implementation of Reconstruction firsthand. He makes the Cameron’s home his headquarters. With the Camerons and Stonemans reunited, the cross family love affairs can be rekindled. However, the scars of the War still cause problems. Margaret especially has trouble as she recalls how Northern soldiers killed her brother, causing her to physically and emotionally pull away from Phil Stoneman.

Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper) is traumatized by
the death of her brother at the hands of Northern soldiers.

In Piedmont, at the next election, white voters are disenfranchised, while blacks are shown stuffing the ballot boxes. Lynch wins election as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. Those blacks who did not vote the party line are whipped by other blacks and sympathizers shot when they interfere. The new state legislature has a majority of blacks and members are shown putting their bare feet on the desks, drinking on the floor, and eating peanuts and fried chicken during sessions.

Newly elected black legislators are shown in a negative light:
 eating chicken and putting their bare feet on the desks while in session

The newly elected legislature passes laws requiring white civilians to salute black soldiers and allowing mixed-race marriages, stoking the worst fears of white Southerners of the time. We see Ben discussing things with other whites in the Cameron home and telling stories that make it sound like blacks are going to run things into the ground.

When Ben sees some white children scaring off black children with a white sheet and pretending to be ghosts, he gets the idea of forming the Ku Klux Klan. When Elsie finds out about Ben's plans, she breaks off her relationship with Ben out of loyalty to her father.

Even though there are warnings for whites to stay inside, Flora goes off alone to fetch water. Following her is Gus (Walter Long, in blackface), a freed slave and now in the Army. He’s attracted to her and confronts her about his desire to get married. Flora flees further into the forest and Gus pursues her to a precipice. Flora warns Gus she’ll jump if he comes any closer. When he does, rather than give into him, Flora leaps.

Flora (Mae Marsh) leaps to her death to escape the sexual advances of freed slave Gus.

She doesn’t die right away and is found by her brother Ben, who has been looking for her and has seen her jump. She dies in his arms and presumably tells him why she leapt. He carries her body back to the Cameron house and then gathers the Klan to hunt down Gus. The Klan puts him on trial, finds him guilty and lynches him. They then dump his dead body on the steps of Lt. Governor Lynch’s house where it is discovered the next morning.


Gus (Walter Long) is hunted down, tried and lynched by the KKK for acts leading to Flora's death.

Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan and even having the costume is punishable by death. When Ben’s is discovered in Dr. Cameron’ house, the father is arrested. But Ben and their faithful black servants rescue him, and flee. However, their wagon breaks down and they’re forced to continue on foot through the woods, taking refuge in a small hut which is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers. The former enemies agree to hide them and as the title card states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."

Congressman Stoneman leaves town to avoid being connected with Lynch's crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron's arrest, waits anxiously for her father to return. When he’s late, she goes to Lynch for help. Lynch, who had been lusting after Elsie since first seeing her, tells her that he wants to marry her. He is forceful and Elsie faints. Stoneman returns, causing Lynch to place Elsie in another room. At first, Stoneman is happy when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is then angered when Lynch tells him that it is Stoneman's own daughter.

Elsie screams for help when Lynch tries to force her to marry him.

Undercover Klansmen spies, wearing blackface naturally, discover Elsie's plight when she breaks a window and cries out for help. Elsie falls unconscious again, and revives gagged and bound. The clans gather together and, at full strength under Ben’s leadership, ride into Piedmont to regain control of the town. When news about Elsie reaches Ben, he and others rescue her and capture Lynch. The victorious Klansmen celebrate in the streets of Piedmont.

Clansmen ride into Piedmont and take control of the town.

Meanwhile, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, once again led by Ben, race to the scene and save the Camerons just in the nick of time.

Elsie finds out that her savior is Ben in the robes of the KKK.

On the next election day, with the Klansmen in charge, blacks are intimidated into not voting.

The film concludes with the double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron and of Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman. In parallel, the masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene then shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Jesus Christ. The title card rhetorically asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."

While the depiction of blacks as happy and content slaves was bad enough in Part 1, their stereotypical depiction in Part 2 is far worse. To boot, they’re shown as devious, sexually perverted and equated with evil. Easily led by Northern Carpetbaggers, like Lynch, the now freed slaves don’t seem to know what to do with their freedom.

The KKK is shown as being the great equalizer for Whites, as they literally ride to the rescue time and time again, dispensing their brand of justice. We’re led to believe that the KKK has God on their side, as they are the only ones who can bring peace to the troubled lands in the South.

While the South was being punished to a certain extent by the victorious North, the racist vigilante justice of the KKK is a black mark on U.S. History, the same as slavery was as well. In a nation that preaches equality, there is no place for racism nor bigotry and it is sad that such a monumental film would be seen to promote negative stereotypes and condone the travesties carried out by the Clan. It's hard not to watch the film and not be left with that impression. Again, Trophy Unlocked does not support the viewpoints expressed in the film.

Like Part 1, the pace of Part 2 is slow for modern aesthetics, as shots linger. Title cards are used more frequently for dialogue, but are still mostly there to set up scenes. Gish’s acting style is still relatively restrained, except when she realizes she’s in love with Ben and leaps around her room with glee.

The film was produced by David W. Griffith Corp., but distributed by Epoch Producing Co. In large cities Epoch would negotiate with individual theater owners for a percent of the ticket sales; in some cases, Epoch would sell off whole states or territories to a single distributor, known as states rights distribution. One such distributor, Louis B. Mayer, who controlled New England, would make enough that it would allow him to start making his own films and would lead eventually to the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

Tickets went for about $2, which is equivalent to about $47 to $50 now. Calculating boxoffice is difficult given the distribution. Estimates are that the producer’s share was between $4.8 to $5 million. Since Epoch took about 10% of the ticket receipts and relied on theater owners, who often underreported, estimates of The Birth of a Nation’s box office for its initial run range from $50 to $60 million. The film was considered to be Hollywood’s biggest box-office champ film until Gone With the Wind (1939).

The film’s release, given the subject matter, was not without controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested premieres in several cities. The NAACP asked for the film to be banned, but since most review boards were made up of whites, few initially blocked the film.

There were riots in cities like Boston and Philadelphia and the film was seen as causing white on black crimes, including a white man murdering a black teenager after viewing the movie in Lafayette, Indiana. The film was eventually banned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Dixon, the author of the source material, was a former classmate of President Woodrow Wilson and arranged for a screening at the White House, the first movie to be shown there. Dixon supposedly promoted a quote attributed to Wilson, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." When the controversy surrounding the film got too big to ignore, Wilson issued a statement that he disapproved of the “unfortunate production.”

The NAACP also used the film as a springboard for public education, pointing out many of the films inaccuracies and falsehoods about the War and Reconstruction.

[The film is still controversial to this day. A few years back, the then Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles tried to show The Birth of a Nation, but the screening was canceled due to protests.]

Griffith, who was hurt by the negative criticism, wrote letters to newspapers and published a pamphlet accusing critics of censoring unpopular opinions. He would make Intolerance (1916) as a reaction to the criticism he received. Several of the actors from The Birth of a Nation would also appear in Intolerance, including Walter Long and George Siegmann, white actors who had been made up to play black and mulatto characters. Thomas Dixon, who’s books and plays revived interest in the Klan, was not enthusiastic about the group's second era. He felt that, unlike the KKK of the Reconstruction era, the new KKK was bigoted. He also called anti-Semitism “Idiocy”. But on the other hand, he felt it was the duties of whites to "lift up and help the weaker races", so I wouldn't characterize him as a progressive thinker.

Dixon would write a sequel novel, The Fall of a Nation, in 1916 and direct the film version himself. The Fall of a Nation (1916), which is seen as an attack on the pacifism of Williams Jennings Bryan and Henry Ford, has America unprepared for an attack by the “European Confederate Army” led by Germany. The film is considered by many to be the first ever film sequel and was a commercial failure.

Lillian Gish, who played Elsie Stoneman, had a screen career that spanned 75 years from 1912 to 1987. As a child, she worked in her mother’s Majestic Candy Kitchen in East St. Louis, Illinois, where she sold candy and popcorn to patrons of the Majestic Theater next door. Even though she was living with her Aunt and Uncle in Massillion, Ohio at the time, when the theater burned down, the family moved to New York City. One of her good friends there was next door neighbor Gladys Smith. Smith was a child actress who was working with Griffith at the time. Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, would get the acting bug, get involved in the theater and tour in different plays.

Gladys, who would take the stage name Mary Pickford, introduced the sisters to Griffith in 1912 and he put them in a movie together, An Unseen Enemy (1912). After appearing in 25 shorts and features in her first two years as a film actress, Gish became a major star and was eventually known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen". She would appear in many of Griffith’s major works including The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Gish would later sign with Metro Pictures, which would become MGM, and starred in The White Sister (1923). She would appear in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) as an uncredited extra and star in La Bohème (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), Annie Laurie (1927), The Enemy (1927) and The Wind (1928). When the latter was considered a flop, MGM dropped Gish.

She only made a few films in the 1930s before returning to the stage. She would be considered for several roles in Gone With the Wind, but not be selected. She would return and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun (1946). She would also appear in Portrait of Jennie (1948), Night of the Hunter (1955) and A Wedding (1978), but would do a lot of work on television. Her last screen appearance was working with Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987).

As I wrote earlier, I find it hard to judge the acting of many silent movie stars. Their movements, especially in movies from this time period, always seem to be exaggerated as they use their whole bodies to express an idea or an emotion that would normally be communicated through words. That said, I must say I liked Lillian Gish. She’s cute and seems natural in front of the movie lens, especially in comparison with the other female lead, Mae Marsh.

Marsh also got her big break due to Mary Pickford. An actress at Biograph, Marsh appeared in small roles until Pickford, the studio’s resident star, refused to play the role of Lily-White in Man’s Genesis (1912). The role would call for Pickford to appear bare-legged and in a grass skirt. Griffith told her if she wouldn’t play Lily-White, she couldn’t star in his next film, The Sands of Dee (1912). The role of Lily-White and the subsequent lead in The Sands of Dee went to Marsh.

Working with both Mack Sennett and Griffith, Marsh appeared in nearly 60 films between 1912 and 1914. She would appear in both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance before signing with Samuel Goldwyn, making $2500 a week. After she married Goldwyn’s publicity agent, Lee Arms, in 1918, her output decreased to about one film a year. Her last notable silent film, though, was for Griffith, The White Rose (1923). She would retire from films in 1928, but return to appear in Henry King’s Over the Hill (1931). She would also appear in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms (1932) and Little Man, What Now? (1934). Director John Ford liked Marsh and featured her in such films as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), The Robe (1953), and The Searchers (1956).

If her performance in The Birth of a Nation is any indication, Marsh seems to be more of the stereotypical silent actress than Gish. Marsh’s Flora is hyper, kinetic and overly dramatic. Still she’s not out of line with the acting style of her time, it’s just that it wears thin after 100 years.

As a side note, three notable actors turned directors appear in The Birth of a Nation. John Ford (uncredited) appears as a Clansman in Part 2. Raoul Walsh, also uncredited, plays John Wilkes Booth in the historical recreation of Lincoln’s assassination. And finally, Jules White, who would later direct the Three Stooges in many of their Columbia Pictures shorts, also appears as a Confederate soldier.

While The Birth of a Nation tells a bigoted story, it is a very well made film for its time. Griffith was a very talented and influential film director, no matter what you may think of his political view or at least the view expressed in this film. I don’t know if this is how he really felt or has been suggested, he thought the Clansmen would simply make a good story. Technically, this is a very well made film by a director that not only understood the medium, but was also one of its pioneers and innovators. The fact that this is one of the few silent film titles most people have heard of, and is still controversial, shows the staying power of what Griffith created.

Now would I recommend this film? Honestly, if you’re really love films and more importantly, film history, you should see The Birth of a Nation at least once. Trophy Unlocked does not endorse the political viewpoint of the film, but technically, this is one of the standards by which other feature-length silent films at the time are judged. It is also a bit of a history lesson, not so much about the Civil War or Reconstruction, but more about what was considered popular entertainment 100 years ago. You can see how far we've come as a society that such overt racially insensitive messages, although they still exist, are no longer considered mainstream fare.

But like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), in order to appreciate the technique of the director, you have to divorce the work from the subject matter. [Triumph of the Will is considered by some to be a masterpiece of film making, but also Nazi propaganda in much the same way as The Birth of a Nation is propaganda for the KKK.] If you can’t do this, then you should not watch the movie, as the politics expressed will no doubt upset you.


1 D.W. Griffith in Black and White by Bryan Curtis, Slate magazine: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/dvdextras/2003/01/dw_griffith_in_black_and_white.html

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