The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation :: Crew & Cast
Thomas Dixon's The Clansman
"I believe that anything may happen as a result of this (Italian)
fascism. I should like to put into a film the remarkable spirit of the fascisti."
Directed by D. W. Griffith, 1915
The Birth of a Nation :: Making
The Birth of a Nation, D.W Griffith's cinematic masterpiece, provokes controversy even to this day: it enjoys the uneasy honour of being both a technically innovative film as well as one of the most explicitly racist pictures ever made. It has been rightly venerated for its artistic achievements, and just as rightly condemned for its reactionary content.
The Birth of a Nation was one of the first films to estalish the convention of story-telling in the cinema with now familiar techniques, such as the use of parallel action in a chase sequence, and to exploit the full potential of close-ups and fades. Other less-lasting devices like the iris shot (whereby the film is vignetted at the corners) were also used to good effect. It was the first of the 'big' pictures, complete with vast panoramic shots such as epic paintings and splendidly staged battle scenes, all of which are intermingled with scenes of plantation life and coy romance.
The film deals with a prickly period in American history - the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction in the south, from which many Americans were still recovering when Griffith made the film. He himself was a Southerner, raised on the values and traditions of the Old South, though his depiction of that experience is laid out in epic proportions and succeeds in blurring sectional interests and antipathies. He does this by interweaving the lives of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, respectively representeing North and South, whose contrasting lives are eventually reconciled in the common interest of white supremacy or, as one of the film's intertitles puts it, 'in defence of their Aryan Birthright'.
Such anti-black sentiments were not uncommon during the silent era, although most films tended to place emphasis on the traditional and relatively gentler image of devoted black servility, or use the black man for comic relief. Griffith's film follows the same pattern, but with greater force and with the emotive stress placed on the image of blacks as villains. These stereotypes play against the equally stereotyped whites in the films - men are aristocratic and paternalistic and women are frail and vulnerable - but they do not express the interests of the blacks (played by whites in black-face) in the way that the white stereotypes express the interests of the whites.
The Birth Of A Nation is one of the few silent films to exploit the sexual stereotype of the black male in order to reinforce the doctrine of white supremacy. It achieves this through the use of the much dreaded 'brute' figure - personified here by the renegade Gus, who not only betrays his former masters by joining the black revolt, but also comits the unspeakable crime of lusting after and causing the suicide of one of the Cameron daughters. This motif is duplicated in the character and actions of Silas Lynch, the mulatto leader of his people. The sexual racism that these characters exemplify plays a crucial part in the film's thematic development; and it comes to a head in the film's last minute rescue finale which justifies the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, captioned by Griffith as 'the saviour of white civilisation'.
Race feeling ran high wherever the film was shown, resulting in rioting in Boston and other cities. While the publicity this generated undoubtedly increased box office receipts, Griffith himself was strongly attacked in the liberal and black press for his blatant racism and romanticizing of the murderous Ku Klux Klan (whose membership trebled within months of the film's release). Cinemas were picketed, and the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) managed to get the film banned in a number of states.
Today, at least in America, The Birth of a Nation is restricted largely to cinema 'club' showings, and to video- cassette & dvd. But the spectre of the film's original impact lingers and it incurs the same wrath.