D.W. Griffith’s 1915 polemic The Birth of a Nation is, we frequently told, a masterpiece, if a troubling one. With a 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes – which some people seem to think means something – it seems critics are able to see beyond the film’s virulent racism to appreciate the pioneering scope of the movie – even if they were born long after the innovations shown here became common-place. Roger Ebert even suggested that if mainstream audiences didn’t still appreciate this film as a masterpiece, then they were somehow less ‘evolved’ (yes, that’s the word he used) than intellectuals like himself.
Yet if you watch The Birth of a Nation today, why should you be impressed by the fact that it was the film that effectively moved cinema from the age of the one-reeler to feature films, or by epic scope of the film? It’s impressive, yes, but its visual spectacle and innovative techniques – the editing, the use of shots – have been both normalised and surpassed in subsequent years by plenty of other films, many of which are dismissed out of hand by critics. Should we watch movies knowing their historical context and then judge them according to their cultural importance or somehow transport ourselves back to 1915 so we can marvel at these new wonders, pretending that they still feel like a revolution in film making? ? Or should we simply view a film as a stand-alone entity, judged entirely on it’s own merits when seen today? I’m not suggesting that there is no leeway to be given. Clearly, any silent film – or indeed any old movie at all – is going to seem dated in technique, visual style and performances now, and that’s no reason to dismiss them. Equally though, if we expect audiences to forgive – or ignore – the philosophy of a film like this because of its age but then expect them to still admire its now-common-place technical innovations based on its historical position, that just seems like hypocrisy.
So let me say this: there are many impressive moments in The Birth of a Nation. Battle scenes that still feel epic, the scenes with the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue are grippingly shot, a scene where a young woman is chased by a lascivious black man and jumps to her death still has some tension and some of the historical moments are impressive in their visual accuracy. Does that visual power make the fact that this is a film that uses actors in black face to portray monstrous, animalistic black men who all lust after white women (like a particularly horrific episode of The Black and White Minstrels) and that celebrates the Klan as heroes any more palatable? Does it mean that those scenes we find gripping are any less despicable? Not really.
Griffith’s film, based on the novel and play The Clansman written by white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr, tells the story of the US Civil War and the subsequent period of Restoration through the eyes of two families – one Northern, one Southern. More accurately, though, he tells is through the eyes of the Confederate Southerner that he was in real life. The first half of this 193 minute epic, originally shown in two parts, mixes impressive battle scenes with tiresome melodrama, while the second half is a racist nightmare showing evil and corrupt carpetbaggers from the North, encouraged by the well-meaning but misguided Senator Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) and led by fiendish mulatto Silas Lynch (played in mugging black face by George Siegmann), encouraging blacks to seize power in the newly liberated South and leading to such as horrors as equal voting rights and mixed marriage. This is seen as a Bad Thing, the blacks clearly too stupid and lazy to do anything apart from flaunt their new freedoms in the faces of their now-disenfranchised former masters. It’s interesting that while we are supposed to sympathise with the disgust shown by these white Southerners towards to black men, the film still manages to make them seem pretty awful people. I’d admire Griffith for that bit of subversion, but it seems to be entirely unintentional. Eventually, Colonel Ben Cameron forms the Ku Klux Klan to mete out vigilante justice to the uppity blacks and seize back power for the white man. There’s no ambiguity here – the Klan are the film’s heroes and are shown as such a powerful, liberating force of good that it’s no wonder than the organisation was effectively revived by this film.
Now, critics are quick to compare The Birth of a Nation to Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, another troubling masterpiece. But this is disingenuous. Triumph of the Will was a documentary film – however one-sided and propagandist – and one made at the time of the events it portrays. It glorifies and glamourises Hitler and the Nazi regime, but it does so several years before World War 2 started and – arguably – before anyone knew the full horrors of the Nazi’s Final Solution. We can condemn the film through the eyes of history, but at the time it was simply a political propaganda movie – it’s lasting infamy coming from its power as a piece of film making that has outlasted its subject. A more accurate comparison would be is someone were to make a film now in which the Nazis were portrayed as supermen and the Jews as parasites deserving of their fate (and ending the story on a Nazi victory). A remake of Jew Süss perhaps. If anyone were to do that, I’ve no doubt the film would be universally condemned, regardless of how technically innovative and grand in scale it might be.
Ultimately, the question of The Birth of a Nation comes down to this: what makes a film a masterpiece? Is it the technical qualities, the sweeping grandeur… or is it the story, the emotional pull and the philosophy? I’d always go with the latter. As we know from any summer blockbuster, it’s easy to make a movie full of spectacle but empty of soul if you have enough money. I accept that The Birth of a Nation was technically, creatively inspired and that it introduced film making methods that would go on to become commonplace. I just don’t think that should matter more than the film’s message and the message here outweighs any revolutionary filmmaking techniques. Do we hail the first CGI movie as a masterpiece simply because of its innovations? The first colour film? The first sound film? The first 3D film? Of course not. The Birth of a Nation is a great technical, creative achievement. But I’ll be damned if I can honestly call it a great film.