A Daniel Tosh joke springs to mind. “I was watching the Country Music Channel, and I fell asleep and woke up racist. I just wanted to take a nap during the Dixie Chicks, but when I woke up, there were holes in my linen.” I just watching 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most important films to ever be made in terms of the effect that it had on countless levels of the technical aspects of film making. However, it is also unapologetically and virulently racist. For decades, this film was used as one of the most integral and effective tools that the Ku Klux Klan had for recruitment, and clocking in at a lengthy three hours, I did not know that silent films could be so effective at conveying their points and messages. The film offended me at more levels than I could ever hope to describe, yet I am forced to recognize how well-constructed the film was in terms of scope and design. I might hate this film with every ounce of my being, but I was still left impressed with the power and ambition of the film.
The Birth of a Nation is a racist, propaganda film chronicling the destruction of the Civil War and then the social upheavals brought around by Reconstruction. Told from the perspective of two families, the Southern and noble Camerons as well as the Northern Stoneman’s, the film positions itself as a morality tale examining the evils of Northern aggression against the supposed nobility and gentility of the Southern aristocracy. The patriarch of the Stoneman family is a member of the Radical Republicans and wishes to impose his “evil freedom” for the Southern Blacks on an unwilling Southern white population. After the murder of his youngest sister at the hands of a freed black soldier, the eldest Cameron son becomes a central figure in the quickly rising Ku Klux Klan and bands together with fellow members to win back his South from the freed blacks. Incredibly racist moments ensue throughout the whole film.
Let there be absolutely no doubts. This film is simply reprehensible. If you have any sense of humanity or sensitivities to the terrible horrors our nation has inflicted upon minorities, then this film will leave you completely furious. D.W. Griffiths was a man of immense directorial talents who was light years ahead of his time in terms of film technique, and he uses his talents for such evil purposes as this film. Simultaneously, you can not deny how well made this film was, at least from a technical perspective. From the quick cuts and fades to the occasional uses of color (yeah, you read that right. it’s tinting, not real color but still way ahead of its time) to the sheer epic scope of the film to the way he would only allow the camera to show exactly what he wanted it to, this film was and is a technical masterpiece. I hate to say it. I want to demonize every single frame of this film. Yet, I can’t. For three hours, I was simultaneously horrified and in awe of this man’s talents, and it kind of makes me hate myself a little bit.
If you’re a student of film, it truly pains me to say that this is essential viewing. Much like the Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, this is one of those films where genius was put to terribly destructive purposes. If I were judging this film purely on the emotional reaction it drew from me and how dangerous I think the film is, it would get an “F” and possibly a worse score if something like that existed. If I were judging this movie purely on its value on what it would do for the rest of film, it would like get an “A”. So, my score falls somewhere in the middle. I hate to even give it this high of a score, but I would be denying history if I tried to deny this film it’s value. I hate this movie. I can’t overstate that enough. It’s evil. That’s not a word I bandy around very often, but The Birth of a Nation is simply evil. However, it’s the birth of modern cinema so it pains me to say this.
Final Score: C