Birth of a nation

Birth of a nation

USA 1915
Regi: D.W. Griffith
Manus: Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
s/hv, 190 min, stumfilm (nb: ikke lydspor!)

DVD | 16mm
Controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece – these all describe ground-breaking producer/director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The domestic melodrama/epic originally premiered with the title The Clansman in January, 1915 in California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US. The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s anti-black, 1905 bigoted play, The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy:

The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865-1900
The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
The Traitor
Its release set up a major censorship battle over its vicious, extremist depiction of African Americans, although Griffith naively claimed that he wasn’t racist at the time. Unbelievably, the film is still used today as a recruitment piece for Klan membership – and in fact, the organization experienced a revival and membership peak in the decade immediately following its initial release. And the film stirred new controversy when it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and when it was voted one of the «Top 100 American Films» (at # 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

Film scholars agree, however, that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history – it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date. However, it still provokes conflicting views about its message.

Director Griffith’s original budget of $40,000 (expanded to $60,000) quickly ballooned, so Griffith appealed to businessmen and other investors to help finance the film – that eventually cost $110,000! The propagandistic film was one of the biggest box-office money-makers in the history of film, partly due to its exorbitant charge of $2 per ticket – unheard of at the time. It made $18 million by the start of the talkies. [It was the most profitable film for over two decades, until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).]

The subject matter of the film caused immediate criticism by the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its racist and «vicious» portrayal of blacks, its proclamation of miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance, and its endorsement of slavery. As a result, two scenes were cut (a love scene between Reconstructionist Senator and his mulatto mistress, and a fight scene). But the film continued to be renounced as «the meanest vilification of the Negro race.» Riots broke out in major cities (Boston, Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, eight states in total). Subsequent lawsuits and picketing tailed the film for years when it was re-released (in 1924, 1931, and 1938).

The resulting controversy only helped to fuel the film’s box-office appeal, and it became a major hit. Even President Woodrow Wilson during a private screening at the White House is reported to have exclaimed: «It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.» To his credit, Griffith later (by 1921) released a shortened, re-edited version of the film without references to the KKK.

In its explicitly caricaturist presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains and violent rapists, it appealed to white Americans who subscribed to the mythic, romantic view (similar to Sir Walter Scott historical romances) of the Old Plantation South. Many viewers were thrilled by the love affair between Northern and Southern characters and the climactic rescue scene. The film also thematically explored two great American issues: inter-racial sex and marriage, and the empowerment of blacks. Ironically, although the film was advertised as authentic and accurate, the film’s major black roles in the film — including the Senator’s mulatto mistress, the mulatto politican brought to power in the South, and faithful freed slaves — were stereotypically played and filled by white actors – in blackface. [The real blacks in the film only played in minor roles.]

Its climactic finale, the suppression of the black threat to white society by the glorious Ku Klux Klan, helped to assuage some of America’s sexual fears about the rise of defiant, strong (and sexual) black men and the repeal of laws forbidding intermarriage. To answer his critics, director Griffith made a sequel, the magnificent four story epic about human intolerance titled Intolerance (1916). A group of independent black filmmakers released director Emmett J. Scott’s The Birth of a Race in 1919, filmed as a response to Griffith’s masterwork, with a more positive image of African-Americans, but it was largely ignored. Prolific black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s first film, the feature-length The Homesteader (1919), and Within Our Gates (1919) more effectively countered the message of Griffith’s film.

Its pioneering technical work, often the work of Griffith’s under-rated cameraman Billy Bitzer, includes many techniques that are now standard features of films, but first used in this film. Griffith brought all of his experience and techniques to this film from his earliest short films at Biograph, including the following:

special use of subtitles graphically verbalizing imagery
its own original musical score written for an orchestra
the introduction of night photography (using magnesium flares)
the use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds
the definitive usage of the still-shot
elaborate costuming to achieve historical authenticity and accuracy
many scenes innovatively filmed from many different and multiple angles
the technique of the camera «iris» effect (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image)
the use of parallel action and editing in a sequence (Gus’ attempted rape of Flora, and the KKK rescues of Elsie from Lynch and of Ben’s sister Margaret)
extensive use of color tinting for dramatic or psychological effect in sequences
moving, traveling or «panning» camera tracking shots
the effective use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions
beautifully crafted, intimate family exchanges
the use of vignettes seen in «balloons» or «iris-shots» in one portion of a darkened screen
the use of fade-outs and cameo-profiles (a medium closeup in front of a blurry background)
the use of lap dissolves to blend or switch from one image to another
high-angle shots and the abundant use of panoramic long shots
the dramatization of history in a moving story – an example of an early spectacle or epic film with historical costuming and many historical references (e.g., Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs)
impressive, splendidly-staged battle scenes with hundreds of extras (made to appear as thousands)
extensive cross-cutting between two scenes to create a montage-effect and generate excitement and suspense (e.g., the scene of the gathering of the Klan)
expert story-telling, with the cumulative building of the film to a dramatic climax
The film looks remarkably genuine and authentic, almost of documentary quality (like Brady’s Civil War photographs), vividly reconstructing a momentous time period in history – and it was made only 50 years after the end of the Civil War. Its story includes the events leading up to the nation’s split; the Civil War era; the period from the end of the Civil War to Lincoln’s assassination; the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era detailing the struggle over the control of Congress during Andrew Johnson’s presidency and actions of the Radical Republicans to enfranchise the freed slaves, and the rise of the KKK.