By: Chris Parris
Released in February of 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in cinema history. This movie was responsible for some major advances in film technology, including the first scene shot at night. On a cultural level, however, the movie bears a dark legacy. This is due to the film’s storyline and historical inaccuracies.
With a runtime of over three hours, The Birth of a Nation is split into two halves and separated by an intermission. The first half is set at the outbreak of the American Civil War. It follows two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons. During the war, the lives of these two families intertwine.
The first half of the movie is filled with superb battle scenes and ends with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and a defeated South being subjected to harsh treatment by the victorious North. The second half revolves around the Reconstruction of the South directly after the war and the origin of the movie’s supposed heroes, the Ku Klux Klan.
In the movie, an unnamed town in South Carolina, where the Camerons live, is occupied by African American soldiers during Reconstruction. The African American soldiers, some played by white actors donning blackface, shove people off of sidewalks and are abusive towards white women. In one particular scene, a young white woman jumps off of a cliff to avoid being pursued by a black man. Black supremacists rig an election by stuffing ballot boxes and preventing white people from voting. The newly-elected black legislators are shown to be barefoot, drinking whisky, and eating fried chicken during a meeting at the state house.
The eldest of the Cameron children decides to form the Ku Klux Klan as a way of rebelling against the black oppressors. By the end of the movie, masses of klansmen reclaim their town. And on the next election day, the Klan forms a line in front of a voting station to intimidate black voters; white people are in power.
On a technical level, The Birth of a Nation surpassed anything else that came before it. A technique known as parallel editing allowed the movie to cut between two different scenes that were occurring at the same time. Griffith also used close-ups by zooming in on the faces of the cast in order to better showcase their emotions. With the use of editing and clever camerawork, Griffith managed to make a few hundred extras look like an army of thousands for the epic battle scene that took place at the beginning of the movie. By moving the camera around the battleground, Griffith was able to produce a sense of space that seemed to span for miles. In addition to technical innovations, Griffith brought innovations to storytelling and narrative. The Birth of a Nation told multiple stories at once. A technique known as cross-cutting showed the audience how one event affected all of the characters.
Although The Birth of a Nation depicted history inaccurately, it grossed anywhere between $5 million to $200 million dollars. If those numbers are adjusted for inflation, The Birth of a Nation made well over a billion dollars. This makes The Birth of a Nation the first blockbuster in American cinema. The Birth of a Nation can also be linked to the second era of the Ku Klux Klan.
Since the movie glorified the Ku Klux Klan’s exploits, new klans were raised across the nation. By 1920, millions of people living in the United States had an allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan. In the Deep South, the rising numbers of klans meant the suppression and genocide of African Americans. Technically speaking, The Birth of a Nation was made at a human cost.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation changed film history and it remains influential. The use of close-ups and an intimate narrative produced a powerful drama that capture those who watch it. However, the movie’s ultimate message is that of racism, in which black people are not only depicted as lazy and unintelligent, but also as criminals and sexual predators.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 Stars