Rewriting History with Lightning – DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation

by Philip Concannon

“In the brief span of six years, between directing his first one-reeler in 1908 and The Birth of a Nation in 1914, Griffith established the narrative language of cinema as we know it today.” – David A. Cook, a History of Narrative Film (2004)

“DW Griffith, when you come right down to it, invented motion pictures. As Lionel Barrymore says, there ought to be a statue to him at Hollywood and Vine, and it ought to be fifty feet high, solid gold, and floodlighted every night.” – Mack Sennett

If you believe some of the things that have been said about him, there was no cinema before DW Griffith. Sure, there were other innovators in the medium’s nascent years, but Griffith was the man who broke new ground and unified these techniques into a narrative that played out on a scale unprecedented in American cinema. The Birth of a Nation was the first film blockbuster, it is unquestionably one of the most influential pictures ever made, and it immediately launched the man behind it into the pantheon of great directors. Whether or not he should remain there is another matter entirely, however, as we consider the thorny question that faces everyone who sits down to watch The Birth of a Nation – should this epic be considered as one of American cinema’s greatest achievements, or its greatest shame?

Watching cinema from a bygone age can sometimes be challenging for a modern audience. We are exposed to attitudes that may seem archaic and offensive to our contemporary sensibilities and we are forced to consider the historical context the films were made in. As you might imagine, black characters were particularly ill-served in the earliest days of American cinema, often written as broad caricatures and being routinely performed by white actors in blackface (stars as notable as Bing Crosby, Buster Keaton and Judy Garland performed in blackface without any lasting tarnish on their reputation). Bearing this in mind, the fact that the major black characters in The Birth of a Nation are played by white actors could be simply passed off as a sign of the times (even if the sight of a white man playing a black maid remains inexplicable), but there is something uglier at the heart of this film that goes beyond mere casting decisions.

That ugliness comes later, however, and while traces of it are present in the Birth of Nation‘s first half (including the tone-setting intertitle: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.”), I was more often impressed than offended by Griffith’s direction in the picture’s early stages. His film is an adaptation of the Clansman, a novel (later a play) by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., which formed part of a trilogy the author wrote celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. Not unusually for wartime stories, the narrative focuses on two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose friendship is severed when they find themselves on opposing sides of the conflict. The way war can transform friend into foe is beautifully communicated through one memorable scene on the battlefield, when Duke Cameron (Maxfield Stanley) raises his bayonet and prepares to finish off a wounded enemy, only to come face-to-face with his old pal Tod Stoneman (Robert Harron). It is a brilliantly effective moment, and while the Birth of Nation can be stodgy and overwrought in its storytelling, it does possess a number of marvellous individual sequences that show exactly why the director was hailed as a master. Perhaps his finest achievement here is his depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, which is expertly staged and edited in a manner that draws a surprising amount of dramatic tension from the now-familiar scene. How startling this vivid episode must have been for the viewers who recalled the incident itself just a few decades before.

Griffith was a stickler for historical details in his productions (many introductory title cards bear the words “An Historical Facsimile”) and the sense of authenticity he strove for pays particular dividends in the film’s superb battle sequences, when the director is less confined by his film’s hermetic interiors. The Civil War had long been a subject close to this filmmaker’s heart – his father was a colonel in the Confederate army – and he developed his depiction of events from this era through a series of shorts that he made in the years prior to The Birth of a Nation. The scenes of warfare that unfold here feel real, with Griffith’s decision to film them in panoramic shots almost making it look like images caught by a documentarian who somehow managed to stumbled across the conflict. There’s something genuinely thrilling about this passage of the film, as Griffith gives us a God’s-eye view of the raging battle – flags waving, guns being fired, men falling from their horses, smoke filling the sky – before moving in for more tightly focused depictions of the soldiers at the heart of this chaos.

The Birth of a Nation was surely the first film to bring such a sense of realism to scenes of battle, and for that alone it is a great achievement, but the problem with certain aspects of your film having such a ring of authenticity is that it can confer credibility on other, less savory elements. Did the documentary-like nature of Griffith’s warfare make viewers believe that everything he was showing them bore the same stamp of truth? If the first half of The Birth of a Nation is an impressive, absorbing epic that goes some way to earning its ‘masterpiece’ label, the second half is a travesty. It is an outpouring of racism and ignorance that surpassed my worst expectations, and I suspect even the filmmakers had doubts about their finished product, as the second part of the film opens with the disclaimer “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.”

Part two of The Birth of a Nation is driven by the all-consuming fear of what black people are capable of when they are given freedom and power. The entire race is depicted as a devious group driven only by the most base instincts, and while Griffith gives significant roles to a couple of ‘mulatto’ characters (although Lydia the housemaid, permanently wide-eyed with sexual excitement, is an embarrassment), other black characters are restricted to interjections like “Dem free-niggers f’um de N’of am sho’ crazy” [sic]. The film reaches some kind of nadir in the notorious legislature sequence, as the newly empowered negroes run amok – drinking alcohol, chomping on chicken, lying sprawled with their bare feet on desks – while the laws passed in their favour are read out. It is a disgraceful, indefensible scene, presenting them as little more than animals unfit for decent society, but worse is yet to come. Of the new laws announced, only one sparks the blacks in attendance into wild celebrations – the law allowing intermarriage between races. All black men really wanted, according to The Birth of a Nation, was the right to fuck white women.

Everything that occurs from this point onwards is built around the predatory instincts of the negro and the sacred purity of the white female. Dull-witted Gus (Walter Cameron – credited as “A Renegade Negro”), his eyes inflamed with desire, chases Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) through the woods and she chooses to fall to her death rather than be violated by him. Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) holds Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) captive in his home and attempts to take her by force, promising her that he will “…build a black empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.” Finally, in the climactic siege, a group of terrified whites take refuge in a cabin and try to reinforce the doors against the marauding blacks. Fearing the worst, one man prepares to kill his own daughter, lest she should fall into the hands of their attackers.

Perhaps the best way to look at The Birth of a Nation is to try and separate its form and its content, in the same way we might admire the filmmaking technique of Leni Riefenstahl while deploring her glorification of Hitler. Griffith’s orchestration of the film’s big climax is astonishing on a technical level. Look at the way he cuts between multiple locations as Elsie is tormented by Silas and the siege reaches its apex, and look at the way he builds a sense of momentum through close-ups and tracking shots of the heroic figures who ride to the rescue. It’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the drama of the moment on some level, but then we recall that the figures arriving just in time to save the tearful whites from the animalistic blacks are the Ku Klux Klan. They are the true heroes of The Birth of a Nation – it is they who “save the South from the anarchy of black rule.” – and Griffith’s adoring portrait of them had far-reaching consequences beyond American cinemas. The Klan had been dormant since the 1870’s in America but this film acted as a perfect recruitment tool, a piece of propaganda that mythologised the KKK and presented it as America’s noble protector. It would be a simplification to say that The Birth of a Nation was the sole reason for the rebirth of the KKK during this period, but the fact remains that within five years of the film’s release its membership had swelled to an estimated four million.

In 1915 The Birth of a Nation became the first film to be shown at the White House, and President Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as, “…like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The line is possibly apocryphal, and the President’s aide quickly dashed off a letter to the NAACP denying his remarks, but regardless of its veracity the quote won’t go away, much like the film itself. After making The Birth of a Nation, DW Griffith made Intolerance and Broken Blossoms (an interracial love story), both films clearly aimed at making some kind of atonement for the message put forward by this one, but it wasn’t enough. Despite directing hundreds of titles, The Birth of a Nation dominates DW Griffith’s career and remains a troubling film decades later, to the point where the Directors Guild of America changed the name of their DW Griffith Award in the 90’s in response to the “intolerable racial stereotypes” his film fostered. “Movies are written in sand,” Griffith once said, “applauded today, forgotten tomorrow” – yet here we are almost 100 years after The Birth of a Nation was released, and we still don’t know quite what to do with it. Is this epic a cinematic landmark, or a stain on American movie history that can’t be scrubbed clean? Ultimately, it must be regarded as both.

Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film

1 thought on “Rewriting History with Lightning – DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation

  1. I can believe that Woodrow Wilson said that. I think he is also quoted in the film in support of the KKK. He was the last of the old 19th century Southern Democrat presidents, a white supremacist who reintroduced segregation into many parts of the federal government after a 50 year gap.

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