Birth of a Nation, The (1915)

“This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.”

Synopsis:
After the defeat of the South in the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan fights against what it perceives as the emergence of black supremacy.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this groundbreaking, highly controversial silent movie as “the birth of the feature film”. Indeed, as Roger Ebert argues in his “Great Movies” review, in Birth…, director “[D.W.] Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be.” Peary notes that the film — “based on the Reverend Thomas Dixon’s racist Reconstruction play The Clansman, which celebrated the KKK for restoring the politics and life-style of the antebellum South” — will “astonish you with its visuals” (see here for an extensive list of the cinematic techniques Griffith brought to the film) yet “repulse you with its content”. Peary chastises Griffith for promoting a narrative in which “the klansmen become our heroes when they rescue whites who are about to be killed by black militiamen”, and concludes his review by arguing that Birth… is “a great film… marred by a reprehensible viewpoint”. He concedes, however, that it’s “too important to miss, if only to see what once passed as history.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An abundance of exciting new cinematic techniques — including cross-cutting, night photography, the “iris shot”, and color tinting
  • Highly realistic Civil War battle recreations

Must See?
Yes. While difficult to watch, this film is nonetheless too historically important for any film fanatic to miss.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Birth of a Nation, The (1915)”

  1. Having just rewatched this (my first viewing was many years ago)… I’m going to put it in the same class as Griffith’s other real ‘biggie’ (‘Intolerance’) and say that it’s not must-see.

    I’ll qualify that: I feel it’s a better film than ‘Intolerance’ because of its narrative clarity. Set in two parts (‘Civil War’ & ‘Reconstruction’), the first – though visually arresting – can also be visually repetitive after awhile; the second – more charged dramatically – is also (as noted) ultimately rather bizarre due to its viewpoint. But, at least there is a rather clear through-line to the piece.

    ‘Birth…’ has some additional value. It lays out (to a degree) an aspect of the Reconstruction period that does not seem to be explored often: the role of black men in politics at that transitional time (a Woodrow Wilson book, ‘History of the American People’, is quoted: “In the villages, the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.” This was done with “determination to ‘put the white South under the heel of the black South’.”) – which largely contributed (not surprisingly) to the uprising of the Ku Klux Klan.

    I’m not convinced that film fanatics need to make it a point to see this film; I would recommend it, though, as optional – esp. for those with an interest in American history and politics.

    I’ll also add that my favorite section is the extended one dealing with Abraham Lincoln, culminating with his ill-fated night at the theater.

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