History Never Retreats: ‘The Birth of a Nation’


It was one of the first examples of epic entertainment as evil. Today, it joins the ranks of such (rightfully or wrongfully) reviled efforts as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Disney’s long lost Song of the South. At the time, it was greeted with cheers as well as controversy. Today, it is celebrated as a landmark while blasted for its depiction of a distorted antebellum South. The film in question is D. W. Griffith’s Civil War spectacle The Birth of a Nation. Long considered one of the first true works of cinematic greatness, it also represents one of the hardest movies to wholly appreciate. The first hour or so deals dramatically with the traditional Yankee/Confederate dynamic. Once Lincoln is assassinated, however, the film finds a reprehensible way to make its clearly racist points, and the problems just multiply from there.

The initial storyline centers around the Abolitionist Stoneman family and the gentile, slave-owning Camerons. They are friends, even if they do not share the same views on State’s rights. When the Civil War breaks out, both sides step up and represent their cause. Both also suffer heavy losses. Among the last standing are Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), known as “the Little Colonel” and combat nurse Elise Stoneman (Lillian Gish). During Reconstruction, a mixed race friend of the Northern family named Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) becomes Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. Along with a wave of black support and election success, he begins the process of white disinvestment and disenfranchisement. This causes the populace to rise up. They create the Klu Klux Klan in order to preserve law and (majority) order in these troubled, anarchic times.

If it were judge solely on its first half, if the second part of this production were simply scrubbed clean from the scholastic memory of everyone involved, The Birth of a Nation would still be problematic. Worthy, but worrisome. There is rampant black face (even though many African American actors are used as extras and human backdrop), lots of belittling of the same (oh…that Stoneman visit to the slave quarters…), and a far too romanticized view of the tranquil, human trafficking South. While not as blatant as Gone with the Wind in its julep and plantation proclivities, it is still quite obvious that Griffith is a Southern (his father was a Confederate Army officer) and grew up listening to the bifurcated stories of Dixie’s rise and fall. Using the noxious 1905 book The Clansman as the basis for his approach, the movie mixes groundbreaking technique with horrific ideas to create a confusing, complicated experience.

Griffith is always mentioned as the man who turned film in a true artistic statement. He saw the limitations in earlier efforts and decided to, as one critic noticed, “bring the camera to the action” instead of the other way around. He was the first to use close-ups for added dramatic effect and the first to employ a dolly (or similar set-up) for tracking shots. The Birth of a Nation is filled with such touches. Griffith also had a knack, shared by fellow showman Cecil B. DeMille, for the grand and outsized. While the Civil War battle scenes are clearly shot on some Southern California backlot, the attempted scope is sensational. Similarly, during a sequence in which refugees escape a burning Atlanta, the director superimposes a burning miniature on top of a constant stream of humanity to up the awe factor.

Griffith also strived for a more naturalistic form of acting. While other silent films had performers pantomiming in over-exaggerated eagerness, in Birth the turns are more subtle. Yes, Gish and Walthall have to do all the heavy lifting with gestures and inference (there is very little title card dialogue here), they do so without turning into caricatures. This doesn’t apply to the actors in black face, however. For their part, they make Amos and Andy look like members of the Algonquin Round Table. This is especially true for the various “mulatto” characters strewn throughout the storyline. While Seigmann’s Silas Lynch is one moustache twist away from your typical early era villain, Stoneman’s ‘mistress,’ Lydia (an over the top Mary Alden) is the more reprehensible. She is seen as using her ‘exotic’ persona to woo her white man into corruption and immorality. She is even called a “blight” in the title material.

Yet none of this prepares you for the second act, a mind-numbing expression of every lazy, narrow-minded view the formerly enslaved freemen ever conceived. During the black majority legislative session, we see elected officials eating fried chicken, eyeing women with bad intent, disrespecting their position, and drinking with wide-eyed wickedness. All that’s missing is Stepin Fetchit. Earlier, all black militias run ramshackle over the local populace, destroying everything in their path with an abandon equal only to the most felonious, animalistic criminals. Griffith can argue all he wants to philosophically, but he knows what he is doing narratively and ideologically. He is setting everything up for the sweeping hand of justice that is the KKK. The last hour is indeed a point by point display of how all our heroes are threatened by the nasty “negro menace” and how the white sheet clad soldiers of purity rush in to save them all. Just horrifying.

All of which makes the movie’s classic status suspect. One can successfully argue that Riefenstahl’s use of glorifying imagery supersedes the nauseating pro-Nazi message, but the truth remains ever-present. Similarly, Griffith’s innovations have a hard time fighting off the offensive nature of the narrative. Imagine a movie where the Holocaust is presented as a fantasy in the head of a self-hating Jewish merchant, or child abuse where the minor hints at enjoying the degradation and you’ve got a the basic conceit behind The Birth of a Nation. Even in a three DVD set which offers enough context to wash away a thousand years of repression (or at the very least, hopes to explain it all), there is still a stain caused by Birth that is hard to ignore. In a country that still reels from real bouts of bigotry and hate, this is repugnant reminder of our all too recent past. The Birth of a Nation is indeed a benchmark in modern filmmaking. It’s also a cruel, calculated affront.