AFI Countdown Challenge #44: The Birth Of A Nation

OK, to be honest, I seriously considered skipping this one.  One of the things I was taught in graduate school is the importance to separate art from the artist.  The becomes more problematic when the art itself is technically an achievement while thematically being reprehensible.  I usually try to write somewhere between 900 and 1,000 words on these entries, and while not necessarily well-organized, these are my thoughts on how I took the film in question, maybe some of my ideas on things like where and when the film was made.

But this is 1915’s The Birth of a Nation.  When the AFI redid their list a for a tenth anniversary, this film was gone and director D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance was there instead.  It’s really hard to discuss this film without going into detail on the elephant in the room.

Look, I think it’s generally common knowledge that this film is incredibly racist.  Racism in old movies isn’t exactly limited to The Birth of a Nation by a long shot.  We’ll be seeing more racist depictions of various people before this series is done.  But most of those films don’t depict the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys leading a heroic charge to save the virtue of poor white folks terrorized by “anarchic” blacks.

What may be worse is Griffith maybe knew he was doing that sort of thing.  Here’s the film’s title card:

Should Griffith be given the liberty to make his film, as he pleads here?  Especially as he invokes Shakespeare and the Bible as evidence of what art can do when it isn’t censored?  Well, yes.  He does have freedom of speech.  That does not allow him to avoid freedom from consequences, of course, and even in 1915, he received some serious blowback, particularly from the fairly new NAACP.  His response wasn’t helpful either, in that he apparently insisted the only reason the NAACP and other African Americans objected to his film was because they wanted to have sex with white women, and that was the real crime in The Birth of a Nation.  Seriously, he has a second title card around the halfway point where he says something along the lines of how the film is a representation of “history” and should not be construed as a judgement on any race in the time he actually made it.

So, let me take a minute to talk about the film’s good points.  At over three hours long, the film depicts the story of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Camerons.  The Stoneman patriarch is an arch (and eventually revealed to be hypocritical) abolitionist and while the Cameron and Stoneman sons are friends, with each family having a son that falls in love with the daughter of the other, leading to a double marriage at the end to represent the creation of a new nation, one united where it used to be divided, the elder Stoneman is one of the film’s villains.  Griffith does invent some storytelling techniques, like parallel editing to show how different things were going on simultaneously, and I will admit he built some great tension over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, done slowly with Lincoln and his party arriving for the play, scenes from the play itself, John Wilkes Booth sneaking up, cocking his pistol, and then very deliberately killing Lincoln and ending the “Great Heart” that in Griffith’s mind was at least a little pro-Southern.  The first half of the film deals with the War itself, and while it does have some racially problematic scenes, the really bad ones come in the second half under Reconstruction.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, attitudes towards race (and gender and a whole lot of other things) are in a constant state of flux.  People who held enlightened attitudes for their time can be viewed as racist today, but then there are people who seem to be blatantly racist even by the standards of their time.  Griffith seems to fall into that category, but the more accurate representation of that sort of thinking from that era was a history professor who had a large hand in “Lost Cause” theories on the South and the Confederacy, and he then became president.  Woodrow Wilson screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House, a first time for any film, and praised it as a true depiction of history.  Heck, while we are on the subject of changing times on race, the Klan was dead by then, but the huge success of this film revived it, to the point where it could hold a massive parade through Washington D.C.  Membership plummeted later, but this film led to the Klan reaching their height of its power and influence.

And therein lies the problem with viewing this film today.  It was undoubtedly hugely influential in many ways, but this is a film that depicts black men as drunks, marauders and rapists who can’t control themselves, and then turns around and depicts things like lynching, voter intimidation of black men, and fighting the scourge of interracial marriage as the real virtues of any age.  The main villain is a mulatto man named Lynch who talks about starting an Empire for blacks with himself as the new king.  This is a film where former slaveowners are paraded through the streets to jeers from former slaves, only to be rescued by “good” blacks who stayed loyal to their old masters.  The film repeatedly refers to the war as the “end of state sovereignty” as if that was the only reason for the conflict, and while it isn’t necessarily pro-slavery, it also doesn’t seem to see what was wrong with that “peculiar institution”.

And most of the black characters were white actors in black face.

This is a film where Union and Confederate veterans join forces under the Klan banner to ensure white superiority as the right way to go.  This is a film where a young girl jumping off a cliff to her death to avoid rape by a black Union soldier is seen as honorable (and for all she’s depicted as innocent, she was amusing herself by pelting a squirrel with rocks earlier, so, yeah…).  This is a film where the artistic and technical achievements are drown out by the ugliness of the story it tells.

As it is, none of this stuff was new to me.  I had once read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and every single idea Griffith covers on why black people were just incapable of running anything was on display there.  That book made Yankee blood I didn’t know I had to boil, and the film version is coming up later in the Countdown.

The Birth of a Nation is an important milestone in the history of cinema.  It’s also telling an awful story in the most artistic way possible.  I don’t necessarily regret watching it, but I also know I never plan to revisit it ever again.

NEXT UP:  Well, we’ve got another film with some racist depictions, but it isn’t the Klan to the rescue., so it isn’t that bad.  It’s 1933’s King Kong.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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