Review: The Birth Of A Nation (1915)

the birth of a nation

That’s a whole lotta racism crammed into those three hours!

Written By: D.W. Griffith & Frank E. Woods
Directed By: D.W. Griffith

The Birth Of A Nation is a highly racist film, let’s get that cat out of the bag right now. As much as I believe in the subjective nature of film I’m thinking one would be hard pressed to find a person who could defend The Birth Of A Nation as not being racist. Maybe I’m wrong, that is often the case after all. Either way, I don’t really want to discuss the actual racism in The Birth Of A Nation. It’s present, it’s been the subject of public controversy for over a hundred years, and has been written about countless times. I acknowledge the presence of the racism in The Birth Of A Nation, and it does hurt the film incredibly, but there’s more to talk about in The Birth Of A Nation besides the films racist tendencies.

I had always heard of the great innovations in The Birth Of A Nation, but word of mouth didn’t prepare me for what my eyes witnessed upon finally watching the film. My exposure to film prior to 1915 consists almost exclusively of short films. The sole exception is Charles Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance. To say that the technical aspects of The Birth Of A Nation are on a different level than those in Tillie’s Punctured Romance is an understatement. I did find myself swept up in the raw filmmaking on display in D.W. Griffith’s film. He shows an incredible eye for where to place his camera, how to stage action, and how to use visual imagery to tell his story. The editing alone is enough to make most cinephiles blush, and that’s saying something. Put simply, the way The Birth Of A Nation is filmed impresses. From the use of close-ups to the way motion is presented, The Birth Of A Nation is a milestone film.

That’s not to say that The Birth Of A Nation is perfect when it comes to its technical merits. Besides being offensive the use of blackface in the film is jarringly terrible. It’s obvious when a white actor had blackface on, and when they are in the same scene as an actual black skinned individual the blackface looks laughably bad. The story itself deserves some demerits for its willingness to be overly melodramatic. When the controversial aspects of The Birth Of A Nation are removed from the equation the story that is left behind is nothing special. It’s quite mundane in its drama, although that is made up for somewhat by the scope of the film.

There’s another aspect to The Birth Of A Nation that piqued my interest. For many years now I have enjoyed to participate in, and read, the debate between the sides of authorial intent and viewer interpretation. I am firmly in the camp of interpretation, I’ve never hidden the fact that I view the interpretive power of film as the greatest aspect of the motion picture. The Birth Of A Nation is perhaps the best example I have ever seen of authorial intent versus viewer interpretation. Mr. Griffith claimed until he was blue in the face that he never meant to make a racist film with The Birth Of A Nation. I, as the viewer, fail to see how The Birth Of A Nation can be anything other than a blatantly racist film. Yet, Mr. Griffith claims it was not his intent to present a racist viewpoint in the film. He was making a film, the film he wanted to make, and if he says its not racist then it’s not racist.

On the one hand I do believe greatly that a filmmaker should be allowed to make the film that he, or she, wants to make. They shouldn’t make a film for other people, that creates a watered down product that isn’t all that interesting. Conversely, I don’t believe intent matters when stacked up against audience response. A filmmaker shouldn’t care what the audience will think of their film, but they should be prepared for the audience to form an interpretation different than their intent. What makes The Birth Of A Nation so fascinating to me is the large gulf between authorial intent and viewer interpretation. That gulf adds an extra layer to the film, giving it a power and importance beyond whatever D.W. Griffith could ever have imagined.

Now, I don’t actually believe that Mr. Griffith didn’t intend to make a racist film. For me the proof is in the pudding, Mr. Griffith knew how racist his film was going to be and he simply didn’t care. Still, that’s my belief, a belief not supported by the words and thoughts of Mr. Griffith. I’m entitled to my belief, but it doesn’t hold as much value because it comes down to my interpretation of the actual words of a real person. That’s not a case of authorial intent versus viewer interpretation, it’s a case of me not believing what someone has to say. This doesn’t take away from the value I think The Birth Of A Nation has in the authorial intent versus viewer interpretation debate.

The Birth Of A Nation is by no means one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a very important and a highly controversial film. Mr. Griffith’s movie is impressive in the way it innovates, and shameful in the way it peddles in racism. Most of all The Birth Of A Nation is a film that has always, and should continue to, lead to great discussion. I value that discussion, so while I concede that The Birth Of A Nation has a hide full of warts, I will always embrace the discussion the films brings about.




5 responses to “Review: The Birth Of A Nation (1915)

  1. I just recorded this film when it came on TCM as the film is currently in a work-in-progress list of potential Blind Spots for 2014. I’m just interested in seeing this from a historical perspective as well from its technical standpoint though I’m aware that its racial elements will be upsetting.

  2. The racial component is upsetting, and maybe it makes me cold, but I was able to move past them and look at the film as a film, if that makes any sense.

  3. I believe that Griffith’s racism was such a part of him and it created a blind spot where he didn’t anticipate the reaction. Looking at the way he portrays African-Americans, it seems impossible that he wouldn’t expect this response, but he was surprised. He basically made Intolerance to try and prove that he wasn’t a racist. He portrays the KKK as the heroes who save the day. There are so many issues on that front, and it’s still amazing to see how bad the depictions are.

    Even so, I agree with you about the remarkable technical achievements. I watched this during a film class back in college, and I think that was the right place for me to see it. The cross-cutting had never been used before in this manner, and it changed what film could be. It’s important, despite all the racism.

  4. I was fascinated, as I think my review can attest, by the stark contrast between my interpretation of the film and what Griffith asserts were his intentions. That aspect of the film appealed to my sensibilities greatly, probably even moreso than the technical achievements. I look forward to exploring the rest of Griffith’s work, because I’m not sure if he ever shed his racism or not based on the other film of his I have seen, Broken Blossoms.

  5. Pingback: Review: Ben-Hur (1959) | Bill's Movie Emporium

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