Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Retro Review: The Birth of a Nation

 Truth be told, I've only seen D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation once. I may have even slept through parts of it, to be even more honest. I saw the three hour plus film in an Introduction to Cinema class my freshman year of college, along with Top Hat, Citizen Kane, The General, Casablanca, City Lights, The Graduate, and Do the Right Thing (all of which I had, shamefully, not seen prior to that point). Appropriately, I've seen all of those films again since that class, but somehow never got around to reliving the glory of the KKK.

 The Birth of a Nation was early in the curriculum, as it was taught chronologically, so it was a warm September afternoon (after lunch, at that), when I meandered into class and plopped down for a 187 minute silent film - a silent film that did, admittedly, make serious strides towards changing the way movies were made - about the South during Reconstruction. I should have known we were in trouble when Griffith portrays the first freed-slaves-turned-Congressmen as lazy degenerates lazily sprawled around Washington, D.C., but I had no idea how much worse it would get.

 I gather that most people who never took a film course have been spared The Birth of a Nation and only know it by reputation, much of which is well deserved. As you've probably heard, the Klan are the heroes, saving South Carolina's Cameron family from the hands of a "rogue black man" named Gus. Meanwhile, lascivious mulatto named Silas Lynch is supposed to be rallying the black vote in the south, but instead he has eyes on a pretty white aristocrat. I nodded out for parts of the film, but what I saw really stuck with me.

 The story is supposed to be about the Camerons and the Stonemans, two Southern families with sons on either side of the Civil War. The sons, Ben Cameron and Phil Stoneman, are friends, and not even fighting against each other can diminish that. After Lincoln is assassinated, the young men return home where Reconstruction is running wild in Piedmont, South Carolina. Newly liberated slaves are taking advantage of their freedom, drinking and gambling and lusting after pretty Southern belles. These are the sorts of things you remember, even when I had to look up the names of the two sons in the film.

 The Birth of a Nation is unabashed in its racial stereotypes, ones that echoed throughout every Stepin Fetchit appearance of episode of Amos 'n Andy. African Americans freed from slavery aren't humans, they're animals, ready to take advantage of any opportunity given to them in this film. D.W. Griffith indulges in the worst stereotypes, and in the meantime treats a KKK raid at the end of the film with heroic flourishes - they sweep in to save the heroine from the evil Negro, and then are included in a montage that implies both Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ approve of their actions.

 Look, I'm all for movies that push buttons, and The Birth of a Nation certainly pushed its fair share for the past 96 years, but no amount of camerwork and editing techniques can overcome the ugliness that is Griffith's film. I hesitated even reviewing it - limited memories notwithstanding - because I have no idea who would come looking for a write up of this films. Film history texts do a better job of contextualizing Griffith and the film and of giving the due credit for its technial innovations, but what I'm left with consistently is how one-sided the film is and how wrongheaded its protagonists seem in the cold light of history - especially the Klan of the 1950s and 60s. Every time I think about looking at The Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, I think twice. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.

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