Thursday, March 5, 2009

Thoughts on The Birth of a Nation

I can't watch The Birth of a Nation without commenting more.

I have not previously seen this film. I believe it is out on DVD but I've not seen it. Prior to the screening, a professor from the UC Berkeley Department of African American Studies gave a 15 minute lecture that was very informative.

According to the lecture, the movie was virtually a promotional film for the KKK. The film depicted the first Klan or the Klan that existed during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. The start of the second Klan is typically cited as 1915 or the same year The Birth of a Nation was released. Griffith's father was a Confederate war veteran and Griffith grew up in Kentucky. Kentucky is usually considered a "Southern state" but did not join the Confederacy.

The Birth of a Nation was based on the novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon. The premise of the film is that whites are inherently superior to blacks. Conspicuously silent on the morality of the peculiar Southern institution of slavery and even casting Lincoln in a sympathetic light (he was despised by most Southerners of the era who framed the war as a question of states rights),
The Birth of a Nation is set during the Reconstruction era. Efforts to empower the recently freed slaves are portrayed as misguided or pearls before swine. With the help of their Northern overseers, the ex-slaves quickly disenfranchise their former masters; not to mention accost the Southern belles. Left with no other choices, the white men have no choice but to group together for protection, put on white robes and dispense swift justice.

The plot is patently racist but Griffith skillfully infused the film with his own cinematic ambitions. Having directed several hundred two-reelers by the time he began The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's goal was to create art on celluloid and make a buck. Although not necessarily a pioneer, Griffith combined several film techniques and the result was the first blockbuster. Griffith had a full orchestra perform before each screening (in essence creating the first soundtrack), he toned down the actors' facial gesticulations realizing that the actors' faces were several feet high on the movie screen, he employed quick cut editing to heighten excitement and he even employed symbolism.

At a time when most people paid 5 cents to watch a film at a nickelodeon, The Birth of a Nation charged $2. This princely sum did not keep away the masses. The Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film until the late 1930's.

There were a few scenes that stood out.

There was a battle scene that was filmed from above. Smoking mortars and an omnipotent viewpoint give the scene more scale and grandiosity than otherwise would have been the case.

A scene involving new black state legislators acting in boorish ways in the legislative chambers - barefoot, eating fried chicken, etc.

The closing scene invoked biblical imagery to justify the segregation of the races. Satan (who looked like a heavy set man on an ox) was sowing dissent when whites and blacks are equal and interacting. On the other hand, Jesus looks on peacefully when black people learn their place.

There was another scene which occurred after the KKK has restored order. It's election day and black men stream out of their houses ready to vote and deny the vote to white men. As they exit their houses, they are confronted by several armed KKK members on horseback. The blacks, realizing their situation, timidly re-enter their houses; presumably without ever voting.

The question among cinematic historians is whether one can appreciate Griffith's directorial skills while overlooking the racist content. I was able to do so. I thought the film was surprisingly modern given that it was made 94 years ago. In addition, some of the more overtly racist scenes made me laugh at their absurdity. It's hard to seriously believe racist overtones when they are presented in such a old-fashioned, ham-handed way - to believe The Birth of a Nation, all blacks were eating watermelons, shucking and jiving and raping white women. If you can laugh at the racism, it must have lost some of its effective. If anything, the racism in The Birth of a Nation is more akin to satire when viewed from 2009.

I will say that during the Reconstruction period, most Southern blacks were uneducated. It was a crime to teach slaves to read and write. Portraying freed slaves of the era as ignorant is not inaccurate. Generations of slaves had lived in forced servitude, denied education and systematically oppressed physically and mentally. Is depicting that or its effects racist? I don't think so. I firmly that slaves must have known what they were being denied. Toiling in such close proximity to the masters, slaves must have understood what freedom meant and how dehumanizing their conditions were.

This basic humanity was lacking from The Birth of a Nation. Blacks and mulattos were portrayed as caricatures. The mulatto characters came off as the worst - mixing the white man's intelligence with innate black savagery and untrustworthiness. There was another memorable scene where US Congressman Austin Stoneman helps to install his mulatto protege, Silas Lynch, as the Lieutenant Governor of the state. Lynch passes several progressive laws to Stoneman's delight. One law allowed for inter-marriages and miscegenation. Stoneman is fine with the law until Lynch announces he wants to (forcibly) marry Stoneman's daughter (Lilian Gish). At that point, Stoneman changes his tune and tries to "save" his daughter.

There were many actors in blackface (allegedly including Erich von Stroheim). I wondered why he Griffith didn't cast blacks in all the roles but maybe there were enough black actors with self-respect such that he couldn't fill all the roles. I'm not sure if that is really the case; into the 1970's, black actors took demeaning roles for a paycheck.

I read that Griffith had a leitmotif for each of the major characters. Gish's coda was later used as the theme song on the Amos 'n' Andy radio show.

Griffith also experimented with color in the film. For a few scenes, the entire frame was tinted to various colors to match the mood or main scenic background. It was very crude by modern standards but surpassed what I thought possible in 1915.

Overall, I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see The Birth of a Nation in such a grand setting. On March 6, Cinequest is presenting Griffith's Intolerance (1916). As I mentioned before, I saw that film in December 2007. I thought the plot was rambling. I feel The Birth of a Nation is the superior film of the two.

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