Birth of a Nation

AFI Rank: #44
Year Released: 1915
Director: D.W. Griffith
Actors: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden

I went into watching Birth of a Nation having no idea what it was about. I was on a quest to watch all top 100 movies on the AFI list, and this was #44. By the release year, 1915, I knew it was an old, silent film. By its name, Birth of a Nation, I imagined it was a historical documentary-style story about how the United States was founded.

Instead, as the story unfolded I was hit by a multitude of emotions. First, I'd already seen many other silent films of this era and I was quite impressed with what Griffith was able to do back in 1915. He was breaking milestones left and right with his cinematography, storyline, plotting, and other areas. Yes, certainly, by modern standards we might say that the camerawork could be improved or the plot could be tightened up or so on. But he was the one who started it all. He laid the groundwork that we all learned from.

The other thing that astounded me was how clearly racist the movie was. I was shaking my head through half the movie at what was going on. My notepad is full of notes I could not believe. The moviestated the "KKK ... saved the south from the anarchy of black rule". When a white girl is threatened with the "horror" of a proposal from a black man, she commits suicide. The placard then reads, "for her who had learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the OPAL GATES OF DEATH" (emphasis theirs). OK so they're saying that having relations with a black men was so inconceivable that death was preferable? And when another white woman is proposed to by a half-black man, she talks about *horsewhipping* him for his insolence?

Most of the blacks in the movie are played by whites in blackface, the KKK rides into town accompanied by Ride of the Valkyries, and the main focus of half the movie seems to be how the blacks "want our white women". The movie focuses on that in the scenes around town, in the scenes in the legislature, and in the story. No wonder there were riots in many cities where this film was shown. Some cities refused to play it at all.

So it's hard for me to put all that plot aside and try to focus just on the technical achievements of the film. I'm not sure what even to compare it with. Maybe it's like trying to judge the culinary traits of a dinner that is made from a brutally murdered child. Yes on one hand you can appreciate the fine cooking - but there's still the issue of what the content is.

And certainly the movie is not perfect. Much of the fault-problems have to do with it forging ground that nobody had ever trodden on before. Certainly if the cinematography isn't perfect it's because this was a brand new art at the time. But surely there had been plays for a thousand years at this point and some basics in storytelling were known. The director incorrectly assumes the audience knows all details of the civil war and reconstruction, and glosses over what is going on in some situations. That can make it hard to follow the story if you don't know all the details of what happened.

So, with that all being said, I do give the film great credit for the things it achieved. I wish wholeheartedly that it could have made all those breakthroughs while spreading a message of peace, love, and joy. To me it's a shame that this great technical achievement is married to a work that is hurtful and racist.

As a final note, amazingly, this movie is one of the few on the entire AFI top 100 list that passed the Bechdel test. It actually has numerous female leads and they interact with each other. So kudos to the director for that.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100