ming movie reviews

in about 100 words or less

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

USA 190m, silent (B&W)
Director: D.W. Griffith: Cast: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden

birth-of-a-nation-1915Despite Griffith’s inter-title pleas against censorship and his no-apologies attitude for the “history” that he is presenting, “The Birth of a Nation” is an ugly attempt to popularize a revisionist history based on racism, lies and hate. While Griffith is often credited by many as the father of the feature-length film on the basis of the many technical achievements found in Birth of a Nation, he can also be credited with the birth of the propaganda film, and establishing most of the black stereotypes that Hollywood has since portrayed. In view of these dubious “achievements”, the true value of this film is as an historical document which demonstrates the extent and depth of racism of the last century (Klaus Ming November 2008).

8 comments on “The Birth of a Nation (1915)

  1. Derrick

    Going into this film i had mixed emotions. I wanted to see its historical relevance as an unbiased viewer trying to pick up on the directing and technical qualities that made it revolutionary for its time. I also wanted to view this picture so i could get a better understanding on the time period it was made in and the mindset of the people involved.

    However, seeing some of the overtly over the top racial and phobic images and ideals Griffith developed into propaganda (especially the second part) was somewhat hard to sit through. I was really impressed at some of the techniques Griffith honed, honed being the key word mind you. There is historical debate on who received technical credit and at what level with some of the film developments present in Birth. The common misconception and lazy practice of blindly footnoting him as father of American film, and unfortunately more so as the father of film blankets a lot of the debate literature.

    I absolutely agree with you when you say hes more along the lines of he the first to present the first American film propaganda, seeding in director bigotry to an extent and level i can’t seem to remember being in any movie before or long after Birth, other then his follow up films mind you.

    All controversy aside, His technical imagery, use of edit, closeup and camera shot manipulation was surprising to see so well refined in 1915.

    14 mins in, the close up and edit of the rose, with smooth transition was nice. The use of flashback of the brothers death 2 hours in, and the couple shots of super imposed images were done quite well considering they were the first of their time.

    Lewis Jacobs, an early movie historian, very early mind you, commented on Griffith’s editing and film manipulation refinement in his 1939 publication, The Rise of American Film ” [his] awareness of tempo and the device of parallel and inter cutting, greatly expanded and enriched the internal structure of movie art, [as did his ability] to catch and control the emotions of the spectator.”

    Greatly expanded and enriched the internal structure of movie art? ha! im under the impression that if he never did it someone else eventually would. And thanks to hindsight we see that tons of directors messed around with film techniques, resulting in much better output of celluloid without such high levels of race propaganda bogging down the art. If he was the father of American film, its not much credit. To be the first person to put such small minded and phobic mindsets on such a new and promising medium isn’t much of an accomplishment.

    I think overall he meant to show how the balance of race power can corrupt and alter moral views on both sides. Too bad he was a raciest himself living in a very racist time. Having a new and powerful medium such as film unfortunately gave him his soapbox. Sad really, the first honed technical film of the west could have been so much more then a KKK recruitment picture.

    • rorydean

      Hey Derrick, I know your post was over a year ago and you probably wont read this but I wanted to jump in here as it is apparent in your review that it is reactionary rather than a critical analysis of the film, the filmmaker, and the techniques employed often for the first time, to which critics and theorists refer to and why this film continues to be debated and discussed nearly a century after it was screened. I’m in the middle of an editorial on Birth of a Nation and I can tell you from my research alone that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of documents analyzing this film and if you really want to have a meaningful discussion about relevancy and accomplishment you have to do a little more homework.

      I’m not saying I’m an expert on the subject by any means. First, I’d recommend you screen the 1993 documentary called D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0237131/). Many, many respected, award winning critics and filmmakers (Scorsese and Polanski come to mind) have spoken at great length about the film – the language of cinema as opposed to the obviously distasteful, troubling, and offensive story, characters and overtone of racist propaganda that permeates the film. Whereas a great many would suggest you cannot separate these elements from the technical methodology and I totally disagree.

      Additional sources if you’re interested:
      1. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/40/dvdgriffith.php
      2. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/theater/birthofanation_a.html
      3. http://chnm.gmu.edu/episodes/the-birth-of-a-nation-and-black-protest/

  2. klausming

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement on this one. I agree that he’s credited with being the father of American film all too easily. This title certainly had as much to do with business and historical circumstance which put him in a position to make films like these.

    It is also easy to say that people of any era are products of their generation, and that their views and beliefs should be read from within that context. Having said that, I don’t believe that the content of Birth of a Nation is excusable even from within Griffith’s social-historical context. The very fact that people were outraged at the film during era is strong testament to that!

  3. rorydean

    Hey Klaus…Further thoughts on this one? I’m finishing up that editorial and will post it soon over at Above the Line so of course I’d invite you over to read it so we can discuss further.

    I think if one can remove their emotional, personal revulsion of the message, imagery, and inherent racist elements (and I know that’s asking a lot) it becomes quite clear that Griffith created the feature-length movie as a commodity that has been replicated ever since. He created techniques of film making that are now not only standard practice but directly traced back to what Griffith did in Birth of a Nation. I’m by no means excusing anything, not the filmmaker or the themes, not the racial intolerance and purposeful propagandistic portrayal of races, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the film does not also contain many flaws.

    The best comparison I can offer is the study of the Bible as literature versus spiritual belief, practice and acceptance. Sitting in a room trying to discuss the narrative arc in the story of Job is impossible when half the class accept the Bible as fact and therefor beyond the scope of criticism. There must be a crossroads where both sides can hear one another and therefore learn from the exchange rather than perpetrating hostility and an unwillingness to embrace our past, however dark and disturbing, and learn from it – even when it hurts to do so.

    • Klaus

      Notwithstanding his personal beliefs and motivations, Griffith’s technical achievements in film (including Birth of a Nation) are undeniably substantial.

      I guess the original point that I was attempting to make in 100 words or less (which is probably not possible with a film as controversial as Birth) is that the value of the film extends far beyond any technical achievements, and should also be viewed as an important historical document which reflects who we were, and who we have become.

      I’m definitely interested in discussing this further, and look forward to reading your editorial.

  4. Klaus

    Having just read your very interesting essay, I agree that it is possible to separate Griffith’s racist views from the substantial technical achievements in Birth, and that he certainly deserves the credit for his role in creating the form and grammar of modern film.

    Notwithstanding his technical achievements, and the fact that he might also be considered the father of the propaganda film and the creator of racial stereotypes in Hollywood, I would also argue that technical advancement does not necessarily make a good film.

    I think a rather good analogy of this point is Avatar – a film shamefully bereft of originality, wholly clichéd, not to mention, too long – but one which is heralded as technically brilliant and wildly popular.

    In this respect, I am of the personal opinion that Birth of a Nation and a number of other Griffith “classic” feature films are not very good films, and suffer from over direction and some of the worst “stage” performances in early film. Granted, there were few naturalistic performance in silent film in the early years, but Griffith never really seemed to advance much past his ability to produce film with “technical achievements” – which eventually caught up to him at the box office.

    In view of his formulaic approach to melodrama, and his lack of ability to change with the times, one might wonder how such a “revolutionary” film maker, who helped start one of the most influential Hollywood studios could simply run out of ideas. This suggests to me, that despite his technical work, his achievements have long been over credited.

  5. rorydean

    Wow, this seems like the conversation was some time ago now and for some reason it slipped from my radar, even after I wrote an article on Griffith. If anyone is interested, please drop by and say hello – http://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/birth-of-a-nation-1915-the-mighty-spectacle/

    As far as the last entry there..I really don’t think you can cite an author’s last work or lack of additional work, innovation, follow-ups or what-have-yous as evidence of their talent being over credited. Suggesting as such would demean hundreds of our greatest artists who poured their blood, sweat and years into a singular creation that took everything they had and more leaving us with one great work to cherish. Further to that point, technicality or methodology is inherent in the filmmaking process but hardly the barometer for which films win awards or the hearts and minds of audiences. Please give my article a read. I’d truly enjoy continuing the conversation. Cheers->

    • Klaus

      I recently picked up the newest KINO version of Birth of a Nation on Blu-Ray. I need to give it another watch and get back to this discussion.

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This entry was posted on 11/22/2008 by in 1001 List, 1910s, All and tagged .
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