Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: Thomas F. Dixon Jr. (novel), Thomas F. Dixon Jr. (play),
Stars: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall
Back in July the brilliant Masters of Cinema series re-released one of the most important films in the history of cinema, D. W. Griffith’s great and controversial 3-hour silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Featuring Lilian Gish it’s often been hailed as the first feature-length masterpiece of the cinema. And yet at the same time there are aspects to the film that really grate with contemporary audiences. Louder Than War’s Colin Boyce takes up the story.
It is a title – The Birth of a Nation – that stimulates thought; a provocative title that everyone has a faint, ironically dark knowledge of.
When I was first asked to review the film I was intrigued. I had of course heard so much about the challenging content of the almost 100 year old picture, and knew that it might be difficult to review with these inherent preconceptions.
I had often wondered how it all worked; what if the one child wasn’t enough emotionally? What if the one child was a disappointment perhaps? What if you had already had two when the policy was created? And if so did you have to choose one? (Who would I choose in that situation?!*) What if the one child was in fact two childs? (I am of course referring to the possibility of ‘Twins’ as opposed to the notion of Split Personality Disorder – a condition which 100 years ago wasn’t a condition, and a condition that would remain unnoticed until the discovery of Wee Jimmy Krankie some years later).
When I eventually found out that the film was not ‘The Birth Of An Asian’ and was in fact the 1915 American film ‘The Birth Of A Nation’ my intrigue was still suitably aroused to the point that I watched it. Twice. The second time at a neighbours as I was worried the sound on my Plasma may have packed up again.
The Birth of a Nation chronicles the relationship of two families in Civil War and Reconstruction-era America: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years.
Now the film is notorious to modern society due to the negative portrayal of African-Americans (played by white actors in blackface) and the positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as American heroes.
There were widespread protests against The Birth of a Nation, and it was banned in several cities, yet on the whole it was released to commercial acclaim – a true cinema first (it even became the first film to be screened at the White House (note to self – research whether this caused further racial controversy…)
On the whole I don’t think this is something that I can review fully, partly as I have no black friends to fall back on should I accidentally talk myself into a corner! But mainly because to a modern audience the film is a ball of confusion (I may have no black friends, but I do like The Temptations!)
100 years is a long long time and the social changes since render this film an oddity. To quote my great late contemporary Roger Ebert “The Birth of a Nation presents a challenge for modern audiences … they find it quaint and not to their taste… Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the post-war and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet…”
But there is the risk that this could detract from the fact that as a cinematic work of art The Birth Of A Nation is an important artefact. And that is why there is a strong argument that it is acceptable to view. Society and attitudes change. Who knows, in 60 years time we may be saying similar things about the treatment of Barbara Windsor in Carry On films (Although I would wager that Ted Heath never watched Carry On Camping in 10 Downing Street, and that if he did he probably never enjoyed it.)
*I would have to save Sydney, sorry Luke!
The Birth Of A Nation was recently released on DVD / Blu-Ray as part of the Masters of Cinema series and is available from the widget on the right or from any of these places:
All words by Colin Boyce. More writing by Colin on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive but as this is his first post for us there won’t be much there yet.