10 Things About The Birth of a Nation

Posted by Brandy Dean February 8, 2013 5 Comments 9730 views

If you’re going to love silent cinema or if you’re going to make a study of the early development of movies, you’re gonna have to butt heads with D.W. Griffith. And you’re going to have to come to some kind of truce with The Birth of a Nation.

We all know the problems with that movie. We know, okay! But Griffith was a pioneer, one of those guys in the early history of cinema who seemed to just know how to do things which didn’t actually exist yet. The list of techniques and innovations that he pioneered is long. Even if Griffith didn’t invent, he’s often largely responsible for synthesizing them into the whole that we now know as film syntax. Yeah, he did that. He also introduced the dominance of the  feature length film (often in his case, the epic length film).

For me personally, there’s something inherently unlikable about D.W. Griffith. I can’t put my finger on it, exactly. He’s a pompous ass? He’s patronizing? His personality is a bit distasteful and it often punches through on the film. (I have the same feelings about Orson Welles (I know, I know – send hate mail to idon’tgiveadamn@nowhere.com.) However, more often, Griffith’s films are exciting, still fresh, and somehow modern - despite the shadow of racism, the avuncular misogyny, and the teeth rotting Victorian sentimentalism.

The Birth of a Nation is tough, I suppose. As the always insightful Silent Czarina recently pointed out to me, this is a movie that makes you cheer for the KKK. Indeed it does. Though as a nice gal from Alabama, the first time I saw it, after osmosing all the cultural hype, I actually thought, “It’s not that bad. I’ve seen worse racism.” Keeping in mind that The Birth of a Nation premiered a mere 50 years after the end of the American Civil War, when the South was still being crushed under the harsh requirements of Reconstruction, a film fantasy about a different, more heroic outcome from a nice Kentucky boy isn’t that out of bounds.

So let’s put aside our differences today and extend the forgiveness often required by time and place. The Birth of a Nation premiered on February 8, 1915 is Los Angeles, CA.

What do you think about The Birth of a Nation? Let us know in the comments!

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About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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There are 5 Comments

  1. - February 10, 2013
      -   Reply

    The best way to understand Griffith is to start not with his “epics” but with his Biograph works (only one, “Judith of Bethulia” at 4 reels was a “feature length” film). These short films show us how Griffith worked out the structure of film, the “syntax.” When viewed chronologically, they give us a window into into a virtual workshop of filmmaking ideas and techniques. In these films, nearly all are one reel in length, Griffith generally stuck to what he knew best — stories of individuals in rural, small town and big-city settings. I find that when he tries to get “bigger” with his ideas and settings, he often falters — not always — in BOAN, the epic battle scenes and the ride of the “clans” are incredible in the way they are realized on film.

    As to his personality there were so many contradictions — he was “pompous” and did give people the impression he thought he was a genius (and yes, he was at what he did). But one thing nearly all those who worked for him at Biograph (and even later) say about him is that he always solicited the opinions of his actors, encouraging them to follow through on their ideas in playing a scene. He is always thought to have a victorian “idealized” concept of his women, yet he seduced or attempted to seduce “many” (to use his own word) of those young women over whom he had power as their director. His treatment of his wife, Linda, was especially despicable.

    As to his “racism,” as you keenly observe, it was part of him — a Kentucky native whose father was a confederate officer wounded in battle. But also remember that this was an era where legitimate theatrical works had titles like “The Nigger.” The fact that BOAN could be released and be a huge hit everywhere, and lauded by President Wilson (who was also a governor of New Jersey) demonstrates this. His actors were a mix — Lillian Gish from Ohio, H. B. Walthall from the south, Mae Marsh from California — and none of them though his treatment of the subject (or the original novel) was particularly objectionable, but none had the huge platform, so to speak, to demonstrate their racial attitudes that Griffith had, and he certainly used it to the fullest.

    • Brandy Dean
      - February 10, 2013
        -   Reply

      Ha! You fell for my trap! I knew I would lure you out of hiding with a post about Birth of a Nation…

      And, thankfully, you delivered. As always, your comments are thorough, thoughtful, and completely agreeable to me. I’m beginning to think every post here should just be a link to you with a the title, “Yeah, what he said!”

      I would never hold Griffith’s racism against him, just like I’d never hold performing in black face against Jolson. Different times, different times. I’m sure the pretty cartoonish portrayal of gay couples in mainstream media for which we all pat ourselves on the back for embracing will seem juvenile, simplistic, and perhaps objectionable someday. Such is life. I think it would be a crying shame for someone to eschew BOAN or any Griffith film for some perceived hyper-racism.

      You’re point about the Biograph works is well taken. I haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s The List (a behemoth from the deep that haunts my dreams – by latest calculations I’ll have to live to be 239 to cross off every item on it).

  2. - February 21, 2013
      -   Reply

    I once wrote a play about Griffith that contains a line “Birth of a Nation is a towering work of art that’s filled with hate. The people who love it can only see the art. The people who despise it can only see the hate.”

    As for me, I can see both. I understand your feelings about the man but I came to regard him as one would feel about a close relative who is racist. You can loathe the racism but still love the person.

    I love D.W. Griffith. He was unquestionably pompous as you say, but it was partly his pomposity which gave the movies dignity when they were regarded as lowly “flickers.” And when it was difficult to get funding for a two-reeler, Griffith had the audacity to risk everything on a three-hour epic that most people considered a monumental folly. If it had failed, I suspect that what we think of as the movies would have gone a radically different way. But its monumental success (it and “The Big Parade” were the two massive box office hits of the silent era) paved the way for the industry to follow Griffith and improve on his work.

    It’s fashionable now to discount Griffith and say that if he hadn’t come up with his advances, someone else would have sooner or later. I wonder about that. Griffith was considered a giant even decades after his death. I think anyone who loves movies owes a debt of thanks to D.W. Griffith. I know that I do.

    • Brandy Dean
      - February 21, 2013
        -   Reply

      Well put Jon!

  3. Jan Ostrom
    - August 9, 2014
      -   Reply

    Why did the DGA delete the DWG award…over this?

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