Thursday, January 5, 2012

Short Take: The Birth of a Nation

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction, is a landmark film. It was the first feature-length picture produced in the United States, and it more or less established an art form. It is also hideously racist. The story is about two friendly white families, one Northern and one Southern, whose bond is challenged by the events of the war and its aftermath. However, the narrative is also a platform for the romanticizing of the Ku Klux Klan. Further, it promotes the repugnant attitudes that blacks are perfectly happy if they accept their subordinate status to whites, and if given license, their overwhelming desire is to ravish white women. (The story’s martyr is a white girl who kills herself rather than accede to a black man’s advances. A title describes her death as “a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization.”) The racism is made all the more appalling by one’s awareness of Griffith’s artistry: the film is undeniably the work of a master cinematic storyteller. Griffith combines an epic sweep with a documentary immediacy in the film’s historical set pieces. His dramatization of the more quotidian scenes is also remarkable: the staging and the carefully worked-out pantomime of the acting is wonderfully lucid. And the film has moments of extraordinary emotional eloquence, such as when the film’s hero returns from the war and sees the devastation outside his family’s home. The film is so accomplished that one is tempted to make excuses for Griffith. One may want to claim the film’s point is that the failure to follow the path of forgiveness and reconciliation after the war led to a violent moral disaster that kept compounding itself. There’s a good deal of justification for that view, but it’s ultimately a superficial one. At heart, the film’s odious moral is that Northern and Southern whites can get along in perfect harmony as long as blacks know and respect their place. That’s outrageous, and one notes the film was met with protests even at the time of its release. It’s a shame that such a historically important work--and one of genius in many respects--is so marred by foulness.

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