Whichever way you look at cinema history, you can’t avoid The Birth of a Nation (1915), a landmark, but one that casts a murky shadow. It is absolutely fitting and proper that the film regarded as the first American feature, which kickstarted Hollywood’s rise to global domination, and that was made by a true cinematic genius should be given the Masters of Cinema treatment – Blu-Ray transfer, archival extras, fancy booklet and all. Just don’t call The Birth of a Nation a masterpiece – while this is an important film, it is a terribly flawed one.
Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is an abolitionist congressman, based on Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones in Spielberg’s Lincoln), and his children are friends with the Cameron family in the South. Four of the children will fall in love with each other, but the Civil War will tear them apart. The second and most controversial part of the film details the consequences of the war and of freeing and enfranchising the slaves. Legislature is overrun by loutish black men; Cameron’s youngest daughter commits suicide when pursued by a “renegade negro”. The Ku Klux Klan exert a rough justice for this and other crimes and bully the black citizens back into their place. All ends, apparently, happily ever after, “Aryan birthright” defended, wedding bells pealing, with a vision of Christ.
The Birth of a Nation is an epic film, running for three hours and more, with a big subject, but a small mind. Beginning just before the American Civil War does, and hanging around to see the South recover from its heavy defeat, the movie encompasses battle, politics, romance and a family saga of sorts. Its text-heavy intertitles reveal a worthy ambition: to convey “the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence”. Other intertitles protest against censorship, asking that the film be given the same liberty to speak as the Bible, or Shakespeare. We are frequently told that this or that scene is a “historical facsimile” drawn from library sources. But these arguments feel hollow. The Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Clansman, is guilty of a sin of omission, and the far more serious crime of racism. This is a paean to the South, but specifically a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, who in this narrative save the “white South” from “the heel of the black South”. It concerns itself not one jot with the “abhorrences” of slavery or slave-trading. Its black and mixed-race characters are cartoonish (“Dem free-niggers f’um d N’of am sho’ crazy”) and mostly venal – cowardly, yet sexually predatory, weak-minded, easily led. Of course, many of them are played by white actors, and needless to say, blackface is never a good look. In one horrific sequence a group of black men lynch another for supporting their rivals; in another equally nauseating scene lines of black voters cower in front of Klan members – this vote-rigging by intimidation is presented a as triumph. A cotton-field is used as a romantic setting for the white upper-class characters to coo at each other in.
I mention this because you may have heard that The Birth of a Nation is a great film, but a racist one. That is part of the way to the truth, which is that the film’s racism prevents it from becoming truly great. DW Griffith made many other films with old-fashioned, sentimental storylines – but his best work moves the audience, because it is based on an emotional truth. That emotional truth is missing in this film. Here, in a typically Griffithian sentimental moment, impoverished Carolina belle Mae Marsh trims her dress with “Southern ermine” that is, raw cotton daubed with fingerprints of soot. We’re expected to feel sorry for her character in her shabby frock, but not for the slave who picked that cotton for her family in the first place. That’s quite the feat of mental acrobatics. It’s hard to believe that this film was made by the same director who created A Corner in Wheat six years earlier. Even the wonderful Lillian Gish is disappointing here – her role as Stoneman’s thoughtless daughter (she never visits the library) who is disgusted by her boyfriend joining the Klan until a mixed-race men attempts to assault her, gives her little to work with. Although Miriam Cooper in a quieter role as the elder Cameron sister, is constantly compelling.
Without making excuses for the film’s failings, we should also note its monumental achievements: the deft storytelling here cuts across years and state lines from the home front to the battlefield and never feels forced or confused. It’s long, but never boring. Those war scenes are epic in scale and brutal in the vividness of their hand-on-hand combat – vistas of the battlefield spread out before the audience smothered in gunsmoke; or are sometimes vignetted to catch a vicious or poignant moment. Almost every scene looks sumptuous – this crisp, though occasionally grainy, transfer captures every detail of those “historical facsimiles” as well as the more poetic moments when Griffith indulges himself with a composition of romantic, painterly beauty: as in the love scenes, or the moment when Henry Walthall’s Colonel Cameron is inspired to form the Klan.
If you have seen, and loved, Griffith’s shorts and more rewarding films such as Broken Blossoms, then you’ll rightly want to see this film. Be warned though, you may not like it as much as you admire it, and you may admire it less than you expect to. But once you have seen it you will want to place the film in context, both historically and in terms of the debate around its content. The booklet of material provided with this release includes a tribute by Michael Powell and defences by Griffith and the author of The Clansman as well as a contemporary attack from the New York Times (“It is insulting to every man of Southern birth to assume that he is pleased by misrepresentation so colossal”) and another by Francis Hackett, which calls the film “spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”