The Birth of a Nation begins with a title card reading, ‘A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE’, a statement arguably apt for a film that, despite pioneering huge advancements in the history of film, has long instead predominantly been associated with mass amounts of controversy over racial and political representations. It is interesting to note that this title card was not in fact added until the second screening of the film and also further continues on to state that the creators ‘do not fear censorship’ and have ‘no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities’, a sadly ironic statement for a film that appeared to do just that for many who watched it.
Birth is a 1915 historical silent film directed by long-described pioneer in both the direction and evolutionary advancement of cinema, D.W. Griffith. Over three hours long in length, Birth tells the story of two opposing families before, during and after the American Civil War when the Reconstruction Era began. Griffith, who in fact had much familiarity with the civil war due to his own father serving as a colonel in the confederate army, co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods and co-produced the production with Harry Aitken. Birth was based on the controversial novel and play The Clansman (1905), both authored and then theatrically adapted by former white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr. Arguably most famous for its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman was also claimed to be an influential factor in the group’s later historical revival.
Despite being a revolutionary piece of cinematic history, Birth has spurred countless criticisms of it containing extreme racism and has even been repeatedly scorned as being a tool of political propaganda. Moreover, similar to the original source it derived from, Birth has also been heavily cited as the inspiration behind the second uprising of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and has also further flared outbursts of racial violence and provoked many public protests. Accusations aside, if one were to think objectively, surely this cumulative list of ill-doings is certainly highly impressive in them all being achieved through the medium of film? To perhaps back this musing up, Griffith even answered to the negative criticism given to Birth by releasing another film as a response, the film being cleverly named Intolerance (1916).
Continuing on, the second title card of Birth reads, ‘The bringing of the African to the American planted the first seed of disunion’, therefore immediately presenting the thematic core of the feature to the audience: the hostile divide between races caused by war. In Griffith’s representation of this racial struggle, the film is centred around the Northern American pro-union Stoneman family and the Southern American confederacy Cameron family. Head of the Stoneman family is abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman, who is in fact said to be based on the real-life reconstruction era congressman Thaddeus Stevens, even down to such details as appearance. The Cameron’s most prominent character is eldest son Ben, who, although portrayed as very valiant and noble, spurred outrage from audiences by later becoming leader of the Ku Klux Klan and seemingly glorifying the original KKK in the process.
Although there were many directors in the early 1900’s, Griffith was arguably the most well-known due to having directed over 500 films and is now cited as having made the most technological advancements in cinematic history. With a title such as this, one would of course expect the direction displayed in Birth to be full of awe-inspiring innovation and, despite the techniques used in Birth having now become what is to be expected, they were certainly revolutionary at the time.
Amongst its armoury of cinematic innovations, Birth introduced the use of close-ups, panoramic long-shots, colour tinting, iris-effects and night-time filming, all to name but a few. Some examples of the impressive cinematic advancements showcased throughout the film are featured in the breathtaking battle scenes, beautifully orchestrated with well-executed panoramic shots that are able to show the incredible scope of action. Interestingly, Birth was also the first film to use hundreds of extras in order to truly give a more realistic aesthetic, which is further aided by the battle scenes actually being based on historical photographs and lithographs.
The use of colour-tinting was also innovative in how it allowed the film to convey different moods associated with separate colours and consequently also allowed the element of suspense to be created when two opposing colours were used in quick succession. Continuity editing throughout the use of quick cuts between simultaneous shots was also debuted in Griffith’s production, which is now crucial in many modern chase films to convey building suspense.
Moreover, Birth was also one of the first features to dramatise history with fiction, with is arguably best showcased in the incredibly well-produced scene reconstructing Abraham Lincoln’s famous assassination. Griffith filmed the scene on an outside set that was replicated from an illustration of the original Ford’s Theatre where the assassination had historically taken place, allowing for a sense of historical authenticity to be conveyed. The scene also incorporated the use of matte-colouring, which worked incredibly well as a tool to show John Wilkes Booth’s concealed gun by encasing everything else in the shot in a thick black covering.
Alongside some of the impressive revolutionary aspects of the film is also the fact that Birth was the first feature film to include its own original score, which was co-scored by Griffith himself. Some characters were also given their own theme songs, which worked well to associate to the audience the type of personal temperament each character held due to the mood of the music playing.
Despite the cinematic expansiveness of many of the scenes and Birth also paving the revolutionary advancement for the way that films are shot today, a large amount of critique has been placed on the racial undertones of the film due to the way that both the black and white race are each depicted. Birth created such a large amount of public outrage that several protest groups even argued against it being shown in theatres, including the N.A.A.C.P (The National Association for the Advancement of Black People), who petitioned against it showing in several cities. However, regardless of Griffith himself being criticised for creating a highly racial and offensive representation of the reconstruction era, the acts of vengeance and the black-uprising shown in Birth are said by Griffith to in fact be a ‘historical presentation’ of the time and thus consequently infers that his feature must hold some historically accurate merit.
Although many of the plot elements are, of course, expectantly purely fictitious, Griffith does include various historical facsimiles, stretching so far as to quotes from previous American president Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). Griffith includes several excerpts from Wilson’s historical book A History of the American People, where Wilson describes how the congressional leaders of the time had a determination to ‘put the white South under the heel of the black South’. Although there is a large amount of racism inferred towards the black race being aggressive and violent, one must acknowledge that, ultimately, the figure-heads exploiting and influencing the post-war black uprising in Birth were dictated by those predominantly of white colour. Furthermore, many of the black characters in the film were in fact played by actors in blackface and, although this was allegedly due to a shortage of black actors available at the time, it was cited that when a ‘negroe’ character was interacting with a white character, the black character was always played by a white actor in blackface. Interestingly also, many of the reconstruction era scenes showing the newly instated black legislature were also said to be based on political cartoons and illustrations, which, if anything like modern times, are often highly satirical and hyperbolic in nature.
In terms of the representation of the black race in the film as being sexually aggressive towards women, a scene that is often described as one of the most ‘horrifying’ is when young Flora Cameron purposely falls to her death from a cliff when being chased by a black renegade named Gus. Despite Gus telling Flora that he ‘means no harm’, she decides that she would rather fall to her death than be touched by him. What makes this scene even more poignant and manipulative to the audience is the fact that Flora’s elder brother, Ben, is tragically the one to find her body. Nearing the conclusion of the film, the mulatto Lieutenant Governor, Silas Lynch, also tries to force marriage onto a reluctant white female character. Here is where the film perhaps exploits the use of audience sympathy again by partnering the aggressive actions of the mixed-race character with a particularly helpless white female character, thus inherently creating more evocative sympathy for the victim and allowing for a negative racial message to be inferred. Building further on the representation of the black race in the film, the blacks of the reconstruction era were also described as being ‘crazed negroes’, whilst the Southern white were described as both ‘helpless’ and a ‘minority’, consequently placing negative connotations towards the first and, again, sympathetic connotations towards the latter.
Another large controversy sparked from Birth’s release was that it was hugely hailed to be political propaganda due to it being cited as being a promotional tool for members of the Ku Klux Klan. During the first showing of the film in Clune’s Theatre in Los Angeles, February 18th, 1915, members of the clan were in fact said to have rode up and down the street as a means of publicity for new membership. Moreover, there is a famous sceneiBirth in which the KKK rides up to a cabin to rescue a group of white people from a militia of black people, consequently glorifying the KKK to be heroic and valiant in their ideology and then tarring the black race to be aggressive.
To conclude, as we are no longer in the early twentieth century and most likely never were, there is somewhat of a blurred line when judging what is actually factual about Birth and what is intended to be blatant racial material. If we were to take Griffith’s words ‘plea for the art of the motion picture’ and hold them credible against the entire content of Birth, perhaps everything would then become more artistically subjective, rather than everything fictitious becoming completely factual and true. Regardless of the inescapable negative criticisms attached to it, one must remember that Birth was one of the fathering films that now allows the many cinema goers of today to still be awed and impressed by the newest use of CGI and other fanciful technological advancements when visiting the cinema. Due to the inevitable ever-evolving shift in cinematic entertainment, perhaps many modern day film audiences would choose to pass on watching a civil war epic, however, regardless of what century we enter into, Birth still stands as one of the most powerful and influential film masterpieces ever created.
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