Tag Archives: Birth of a Nation

Class Notes: “Birth of a Nation”

2 Jul

So I know it’s summer. It’s grogeous out, I’m in one of the busiest cities in the world. But, ya know what I miss?

NOT being in school.

It’s summer, and I’m still in class.

Thankfully, first semester of summer class have passed (and I will never forgive the computer science professor who gave me a “B+” off of a 89.9, curse you!). The second slew of classes have just started, and you, dear reader, will benefit from it. Without having to attend the lectures nor write the papers, I will discuss my Film and Society class. A Sociology class, but one that speaks to two of my loves: social constructs and film history. Let the paper writing commence!

It's the stuff of nightmares.

Our first film was none other than the very beautifully shot, loathsome piece of historical bullshit, “Birth of a Nation.” Part imagined history, part love story, 110% racist. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Thank the Lord they don’t. Talk about the most awkward 3 hours and then some I had to sit through for a movie. Any movie, let alone a silent film, which for those who haven’t sat through “The Cheat”, “Broken Blossoms”, “The Sheik”, etc., are some of the most racist films in history. And they were wildly popular (with “Birth of a Nation” becoming the highest grossing silent film).  Cinema techniques pioneered by the talented Mr. Griffth can not even begin to make up for the blatant charicatures and offensive stereotypes of the black characters in the “story.” I place the quotation marks on “story” because it is a thinly veiled argument for the superiority of the white man who, according to the “story”, is the only one who can restore polite society and order to this country. Excuse me, while I grab the bucket-this film should make everyone sick to their stomachs.

As a modern movie-goer, it was difficult to see how this movie was so popular across the country. Partially because of the controversy and boycotts surrounding it, curious movie patrons ended checking it out, but crowds were said to have enjoyed it. People whooped and hollered at the arrival of the Klan in the nick of time to save the white family from certain death. Meanwhile, I’m horrified at one point during the climax of the battle, a father prepares to murder his daughter next to her fiance in order to “protect” her from the incoming battalion of black men. Um…

A painful still from "Birth of a Nation."

Yet that’s not even the worst of it. Incredibly, all “leading” black actors (maids, mulattoes, and traitors) are actually white actors and actresses in blackface. There’s an affair hinted between a crooked politician and his mulatto maid (who gets off when he “talks powerfully”). She manipulates him into making “bad decisions” like appointing another mulatto to be his apprentice for the senate. Basically, the writer said that mixed race individuals were not to be trusted. Who is this asshole and how the hell did he get to screen this trash at the White House? Oh, being best friends with Woodrow Wilson helps, I guess.

Even West Point lent a helping hand by providing the correct Civil War strategies and the artillery. This is unfortunately one of the only historical accuracies in the entire film. However, D.W. Griffith succeeded in not only creating film history, but for a long time rewriting American history. Historical scholars had to remount assessments on the Reconstruction Period in order to check the information the movie portrayed as a “true account” of the time.

Now, while I hated, detested, and loathed every minute of this film, I do not think every negative of it should be burned or that it should be banned. It’s the first time in film many editing techniques are used, but aside from that, I do not believe we should erase a portion of our country’s tumultuous times from the early twentieth century. It was horrible, it pitted people against their neighbors and spurned a thousand debates. However, burning Mein Kampf or destroying this film does not benefit society. We learn from the mistakes of our past. By depriving generations of the hard learned lessons of the outcomes of apartheid, holocaust, segregation, and genocide we do nothing but allow those cursed doors to be reopened by the ignorant.

I do not believe that “Birth of a Nation” should not be viewed in any setting that is not an academic. It is not entertainment; that appeal should have died the day it was released. But it should remain a lesson, a testament not only to the cruelties of man, but also to the manipulative abilities that historical writers can wield. Outside of an academic setting, the ideas can not be discussed and the hurt emotions from the audience would be neglected. It is a painful lesson to watch, told from viewpoint of the men who benefited from the Jim Crow laws. Unapologetic, the film is both a masterpiece and curse to cinema history. The world’s first blockbuster is also one of the worst lies ever told about the human race. Good and bad are delineated by the color of one’s skin, and the attempt to equalize the groups leads to death and war. Never have I ever sat through so much torture in a film, for it was not the blood and guts of a horror film but the damages done by regular people to each other. You tear up not from the “redemption” from the coming of the Klan but from the injustice done to the portrayal of the so-called villains. Little lies in this movie are strung together to form a horrific portrait of a America that did and did not exist.

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