|Image credit: IMDb|
It’s often enlightening and sometimes disturbing to watch a film from over a hundred years ago and realise that some things never change, and that aspects of modern culture continue to be influenced by it or follow in its shadow. For my afternoon it was disturbing, as I sat down to a film that is critically acclaimed for its innovations in cinema and socially disdained for its subject matter. Yep, I sat down and watched The Birth of a Nation.
Told in two parts the film follows two American families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. Part one follows them through the Civil War, beginning with the introduction of slavery to America and then jumping right in to the fighting, before ending on the assassination of Lincoln. Part two then follows the families through the Reconstruction era and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith makes a point of claiming his indifference to the racism of the subject material, the film being an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, but that did not stop the film being absolutely reviled upon its release for its horrendous and disturbing depictions of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviours. It’s undoubtedly one of the most racist and shocking films ever made and yet it’s still studied to this very day. Why?
Here’s why. It was the first real cinematic epic, a film so artistically compelling that audiences would stay put for the entire three hours despite the shocking content. It was the birth of modern camera techniques with Griffith introducing dramatic close-ups and tracking shots amongst others as well as the birth of cinematic editing with the introduction of crosscutting, parallel action sequences, and more. A lot of modern cinema owes its very skeleton, consciously or not, to this film and while the artist did not agree with the message of his medium, he still put everything into making undeniable art.
|Image credit: Britannica|
It just goes to show that the ‘don’t shoot the artists’ mentality in cinema has been around for over a century and debates are still surrounding this piece.
The Birth of a Nation is probably one of the rarest films ever, being both morally condemned and artistically celebrated. However it’s a film for people who love film; I most certainly would not recommend it to those who enjoy watching moves, but aren’t so invested in the inner workings of the medium.
Director: D. W. Griffith, 1915
Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, & George Beranger