(I’m working my way through the critically-selected 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, watching them all in sequence or as close to sequence as I can get.)
Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation has quite the dual reputation. Everyone talks about its technical expertise, its stellar performances, its sheer scope and spectacle. Everyone also talks about how staggeringly and blatantly racist it is – it celebrates the Ku Klux Klan, it features actors in blackface and it drew complaints from the NAACP at the time of its release. So I knew that watching it was going to be tough. But I made myself keep an open mind when I watched.
And I think the open mind made everything even worse.
Parts of the plot are actually quite complex. The movie is mainly about two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, who are actually friends throughout the film. Phil Stoneman and his brother are buddies with the two oldest Cameron brothers, and during a visit south at the movie’s start, Phil takes a shine to the older Cameron sister Margaret – meanwhile Ben Cameron is taken with a picture of Phil’s only sister Elsie. While the kids are running around down south, the elder Stoneman, an abolitionist congressman, is coming under the sway of his mixed-race housekeeper.
The Civil War temporarily divides everyone – each set of brothers enlists with the Union and the Confederacy in turn, with the war claiming the younger brothers (who die in each others’ arms). Ben and Phil recognize each other again in turn, when Ben leads a charge on the Union outpost defended by Phil’s squad; when Ben is wouned, Phil gets him safely to an army hospital in the north, where he by circumstance is tended to by Elsie and makes a bid for her affections. And the feeling is apparently mutual – at some point she visits Abraham Lincoln to make a special appeal for a pardon for the confederate soldier.
So the families are friends again at war’s end, with a double romance even in the air, and the southern Camerons even applauding President Lincoln. But the elder Stoneman – depicted as being wholly under the influence of the social-aspirant housekeeper and a mixed-race schemer named Lynch – wants to go even further with race relations, and siezes his chance to enact them after Lincoln’s assassination. And thus the next twenty minutes are a basic Breitbart alt-right stereotype of “what Reconstruction was like”, featuring scenes of newly-freed slaves running rampant in the streets, drinking in Congress, stuffing ballot boxes and shoving white people off sidewalks. A new law permitting mixed marriages encourages a black soldier to seek out the youngest Cameron girl, Flora, and say that he wants to marry her -and she completely freaks out at the idea, runs into the woods and jumps off a cliff.
Ben uses her death to rally the initial Ku Klux Klan, gathering them to find the soldier and “give him a trial” (read: lynch him) before dumping his corpse at the doorstep of the new state governor. The governor – who happens to be Lynch – outlaws the Klan as a result, and arrests Ben Cameron, causing great consternation – and also giving him the chance to get his own hands on Elsie, who freaks out as much as Flora did at the idea of nookie with a black man. Ben is sprung from jail, and the Camerons all flee to a cabin in the woods, pursued by black militia – and the Klan somehow rallies again, riding in to both rescue Elsie from Lynch’s grasp and the rest of the Camerons from the militia. There is a double wedding – Cameron to Stoneman in both cases – and both couples contemplate the possibilty of an eventual end to war. The end.
I’d heard about the blackface; so I was surprised to see African-American actors in several scenes. Granted, they were living out every worst stereotype about slavery and the Reconstruction South imaginable, but they were there. Then again, they were also extras; the speaking roles were all given to people in blackface. The speaking roles also didn’t seem like great prizes – the lot of them were either servants or soldiers, either comically buffonish or malevolently manipulative.
Actually, though, the Stoneman’s housekeeper ends up being strangely sympathetic. Her whole motivation is presented as being the desire to be a respected lady much like Elsie; she is snubbed by a visiting Congressman early in the film, and in a later scene takes great delight in forcing him to treat her with the exact forms of courtesy that he denied to her earlier in the film. It’s clear in the film that you’re supposed to think poorly of her – she is so caught up in “pretending to be a lady” in the early scene that she neglects her work, and in another scene it looks uneasily like she’s trying to seduce Stoneman into doing her will – but frankly, the desire for equal treatment can be an incredibly powerful and sympathetic goal. I found myself actually siding with her in the later scene, and thinking of her as a weird sort of Lady MacBeth type of figure, with her own ambitions coming into play to influence a man with more power.
It’s clear that Griffith put a lot of work into this. The battle scenes were all carefully choreographed, and some scenes are lifted directly from contemporary paintings of certain events (which Griffith helpfully points out during the captions). Lillian Gish, as Elsie, is phenomenal. And this film is also the birth of a lot of the conventions of film that we take for granted today – closeups, two-shots, even a score. It’s a far cry from The Great Train Robbery, for sure.
However, it’s also clear that Griffith knew how some of the racial elements were coming across. In a disclaimer near the beginning of the film, the captions state that the film is not meant to be a depiction of any one race as a whole, and Griffith takes pains to point out the nobility of the “good” African-Americans – Ben is rescued from jail with the help of the Cameron’s servants, and in a scene showing the Camerons grieving Flora’s death, Griffith includes a shot of the two servants huddled together in tears, with the caption “none grieved more than these two”.
But those are small comfort in a film that depicts all of the freed-slave voters as ignorant, greedy, motivated entirely by their ids. They drink, they smoke. They go barefoot in Congress. They stuff ballot boxes. They don’t outright rape, but they act as if Griffith would have showed them doing that if the censors would have let him. And if we still don’t get it, Griffith includes a pre-amble of a caption quoting President Woodrow Wilson, stating that “white men were roused by an instinct of self-preservation” in the south, and towards the end, Griffith explains the motives of the two Union soldiers who shelter the Camerons as a case of “The former enemies of North and South united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”. Towards the end, there’s also a scene introduced with the caption “the next year’s election”, depicting a line of white-robed Klansmen glaring threateningly at a mob of would-be black voters, who all turn and slink away. That was real fun to watch after the last election…although watching the Klansmen dump the lynching victim on a doorstep, with a sign reading “KKK” pinned to his shirt, was far worse.
….I’ve been following the career of the actor Colman Domingo for some time now, after we did a show together early on in his career. This year, he was in a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – which the filmmakers titled Birth Of A Nation, in an ironic nod to how Griffith’s film both launched the movie industry and the modern Klan in one fell swoop. They were trying to “reclaim it”, they said. I suspect that their choice may be lost on the average moviegoer, but I’m thinking I may want to watch it as a kind of palate cleanser now.