It’s impossible to complete a course introducing film history without at least acknowledging D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. Through my studies, this movie comes up here and there in conversation, but the familiar feeling of apprehension envelopes me each time I screen it. The innovation found in the film is undeniable (D.W. Griffith having established several firsts with his film making techniques), but the extreme tones of racism and bigotry cannot be ignore. It is true that the film established a sense of unity among the states and showed the importance of reuniting together after the Civil War, but the angle that D. W. Griffith took to show this and the fact that he put all the blame on the black population are points that must be noted as racist and incorrect.
Starting the film D. W. Griffith successfully established the norm of friendliness between the Cameron and Stoneman families, the Camerons being from the South and the Stonemans being from the North. The Stonemans come down to the Cameron’s home to visit each other. Love blooms between two couples between the families. Both families have sons who are sent off to war, forcing the two families to fight each other. As the negro population gains more and more rights in the eyes of the law and Silas Lynch, the mulatto leader, gains more power on behalf of the black party, whites are depicted as a fearful, lower class. It’s not until the “heroic” rise of the Ku Klux Klan that whites take back what is there and put Silas Lynch and the rest of the blacks into their rightful place, under the whites.
Didn’t that whole end of the summary just feel uncomfortable? The first half of the film, when the plot is being established and the true hardships of the Civil War are shown, D. W. Griffith shows an important message: fighting your own brothers and friends is conflicting and wrong. The message that the end of the film takes, throwing the black population under the bus, is one negative attribute that makes the film hard to watch. That being said, if this one attribute was turned around, the film has solid grounds to be revered in the film community.
The Birth of a Nation marks the turning point in film from short films to full, feature length productions. Being the most expensive film of it’s time, it showed production companies the benefit of a high investment film with its extreme turn around, making it the most profitable film until 1951 (Mast, Ch. 4). Further than this, the film shows strides in both camerawork and film acting. Griffith stressed the importance of more natural film acting, attempting to move away from the over animated acting of his predecessors. In regards to camerawork, Griffith discovered that as the director, he has the ability to direct the audience’s eye to a specific item in the frame. Drawing peoples’ focus through movement and blacking out all other subjects other than what can fit in the center circle of the frame, Griffith set a new standard for film, forcing future filmmakers to use these tactics as well as his similar use of medium, long, close up shots and others to draw the attention of the viewer.
D. W. Griffith, as racist as he was, made genius technical strides for the film industry that without them, we very well could still be relying on the theatrical, overacting of the earlier silent films.
Original release date: September 27, 2015 // Amended June 8th, 2020
Mast, Gerald. “Chapter 4: A Birth of a Nation” A Short History of the Movies. 11th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.
The Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. Epoch Production Company, 1915. DVD.