Ken's Review of The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation(1915)
Of course, considering its subject matter and notorious racism, the only thing to admire about this film is its pioneering technique and so this is what I tried to pay attention to the most. An impossible task, but I did my best. There are moments where Griffith's innovations are obvious. For example, when the camera moves with a character, rather than sits still while the action goes on around it. There is also the cutting from interior rooms to exteriors and from one scene to another and back as a means of explaining what is happening simultaneously in the story. These are of course today simple techniques that the modern viewer takes for granted and does not even notice. But storytelling through film was brand new in Griffith's day and thus he invented much of what is today the commonly accepted visual language of the medium. For that alone, "The Birth of a Nation" will and should always be revered. That doesn't mean I have to enjoy the movie.
It's a shame that such innovation had to accompany a disgraceful story laced with despicable stereotypes and misrepresentations of history. What more can be said about the abomination that is the plot of this story than to present the facts. The founders of the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes of this tale while all of the black people of the film are presented as ungrateful, slovenly, lascivious, traitorous, and stupid. It is of course shocking to watch but in a way essential as well. For it's importance is not only in Griffith's technical breakthroughs but in its candid representation of the generally condoned bigotry that still pervaded all levels of American society in the early 20th Century.
The scene that continually haunts my mind follows the arrival of carpetbaggers in the South and their promotion of suffrage for blacks. Black men are elected to key government posts and, in the context of the film anyway, run amok. The viewer is treated to astonishing scenes of African American congressmen munching away on fried chicken, sitting with their bare feet up on their desks, and sneaking liquor. Every moment represents preposterously racist propaganda at its most hateful.