|Scene from The Birth of a Nation|
Today marks a revolutionary moment in cinematic culture. 100 years ago today, director D.W. Griffiths' Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation opened. It is important to note that prior to this, film was a novelty and the concept of auteurs was foreign. Still, over the course of three hours and 20 minutes, Griffiths shaped a medium that has evolved beyond its limited confines to become something far more compelling. While many will likely (and rightfully) focus on the dated racism of its work, there's a lot of other things that the film helped to revolutionize. Some of them even are present in the Academy Awards nominees and winners; the top tier of awards established 12 years after this film's release and a testament to how the medium has grown.
*NOTE: The following will contain spoilers for The Birth of a Nation. It will also contain troubling subject matter relevant to the subjects discussed.
|Scene from Gone with the Wind|
The reason to remember The Birth of a Nation is not specifically of its social politics. Yes, the concept of KKK members tarring and feathering demonized blacks is an upsetting image, especially considering that it was glorified. However, the movie was the firs time that an epic would be placed to film and the results are astounding. As a whole, the package is immediately striking and full of life as it deals with a family torn by the Civil War and the the deaths that follow.
We see the gruesome deaths and feel attached to the tragedy. This is largely thanks to how the film was shot. Due to its limited effects, the varying scenes were shot using different colored hues to indicate the story's location. Also considering that it cross-edited several stories into one cohesive narrative also allows the perils that build in the third act to have a resounding crescendo in their conclusion. Along with fish lens photography and wide shots transitioning to close-ups, the film throws the viewer immediately into the moment and gives us a better emphasis on who these characters are. Even the title cards were branded with Griffith's name and his initials "D.G." across the bottom. Much like Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg to follow, Griffith knew to brand his movies.
This is the most crucial piece of the puzzle that is likely taken for granted now. Directors such as Martin Scorsese have claimed influence from the film's execution. With the film also helping to make rise to the blockbuster and a sense that film could be something grander, the medium began to evolve. The Birth of a Nation is considered to be very profitable despite being predominantly shown as a road house showing and a lack of official box office numbers readily available. The film's financial success was a title held until 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; the first fully animated full-length film and the next logical achievement in the medium.
Still, the film that feels like a more polished and accessible version of The Birth of a Nation remains Gone with the Wind, which graced screens 24 years later. It dealt with the Civil War and racism in very similar ways. However, it also felt like it was self-aware enough to take the scope and apply more of a realism to it. The black characters were portrayed by authentic actors including first black Best Supporting Actress winner Hattie McDaniel. The film became a lingering success for its audacious cinematography and showed the growth of the medium rather effectively.
From there, it is arguable that even the least racist of films owe something to Griffith's epic. After all, it did manage to convey romance and war in ways that have become a template and guaranteed success not only in Gone with the Wind, but more recently with films like Titanic and The English Patient. Griffith created the visceral shot that made an audience care about a grander story. He made a film lasting over three hours more tolerable than it could have been.
It is dated by today's standards, but the ambitions were clearly enough to get the Academy Awards to become a thing. Even the first Best Picture winner, Wings in 1927, feels very much an evolution of the technique. With its aerial battle shots and sweeping romance between a fighter pilot and a nurse, it captures similar emotions. Its cry for war even feels reminiscent as it is presented with personalized title cards. It makes sense why Griffith went on to win an honorary Oscar in 1936. From the common silent film to the modern epic, he left a primitive stamp that has only evolved in authentic ways.
|Scene from Mrs. Miniver|
Everything beyond here lies heavily on the first point, but is worth noting in detail. For starters, it is compelling to note how obsessed culture has been with war movies, most notably with Best Picture nominee American Sniper. However, to note that the first big screen epic was about the Civil War is a fascinating idea. As the film opens up, Griffith suggests that war is a traumatic experience for everyone and that what follows is a rather striking and powerful look at something that sadly has been replicated in reality time and time again.
While there is only one true moment of war in the entire picture, the second part focusing on the Reconstruction Era could also be perceived as a war. To start at the beginning, the film opens up on two brothers being assigned to go to war. There's the enthusiasm for patriotism as the family waves them off. The conflict of them being Northern and Southern soldiers raises the stakes more until their deaths strike the audience and leaves the Reconstruction to deal with a grieving family who must come to terms with the chaos to follow. In the second half, the KKK serve as the heroes who take down the maniacal black characters in a stampede.
While the grander scale is impressive and the battle zone scenes authentic, it is largely thanks to how close the Civil War was to the actual film. The Birth of a Nation was only 50 years removed from that war. However, what gives the film more edge than being a simple war film is that it focused on every side and had an impressive scroll of stories going on simultaneously. Beyond the brothers, there was the family who grieved, the government, blacks and yes, even the KKK. It was an epic jam packed with characters that kept rotating in between the colored hues.
The war scenes actually have a striking maturity to them. At no point in the first half is one side seen as sympathetic. The war takes casualties in a tragic manner. Meanwhile, the various raids of townspeople portrayed in the towns are filled with close ups of families hiding in peril, often with fish lenses tightening up their hiding place to show the claustrophobic nature. There's consistent tension over how these people will escape the violent force that seeks to attack them. To summarize, the film features a very basic "war is bad" message in which everyone tries to move on, but cannot actually live in harmony.
War films are prevalent in culture. There's so many differing ones that to go through them all would be exhaustive. However, in terms of Oscar winning films, there's a ton that in some way feel like they have adapted the themes. The aforementioned Wings borrows the dual war and romance plot to personalize the peril. Films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Platoon sought to show the hellish actions on the battlefield in jarring detail. There was a consistent cry that things were bad for anyone within a certain radius of the film.
One of the notable entries that reflects a different side is Mrs. Miniver, which focuses on England citizen's involvement with the war. Director William Wyler turned architectural destruction into the ultimate danger. They were uprooting homes constantly with bombs as citizens watched in the distance from their cars. More than the battlefield scenes of other Best Picture winners, this film added a discomfort to those who weren't soldiers. Much like those citizens hiding in the fish lenses in The Birth of a Nation, Mrs. Miniver did an excellent job in making that tension feel more real, leaving audiences to connect personally in the same helpless manner that Griffith once showed.
If one trend has come out of the war genre from The Birth of a Nation, it is that the availability of more effects and tools allowed the scenes to become more visceral. Speaking as the film was no slouch to begin with, it managed to turn war into something compelling, repulsive and destructive. It turned tragedy into art in ways that didn't seem possible. It captures a hopelessness that ties into innocence lost and the inability to ever truly be the same. True, Gone with the Wind would better embody these aspects, but that wouldn't be for another few decades. Much like the dated nature of The Birth of a Nation's politics, the war has an unrepentant charm to it that is both dated and striking.
|Scene from Young Mr. Lincoln|
3. Historical Accuracy
One of the most astounding feats is that The Birth of a Nation actually strove for a certain realism. While film has grown to be about spectacle and questionable accuracy, Griffith wanted his film to look like photographs in motions. In fact, the scenes featuring Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) talking to his congress all have an authentic staging. When someone exits from the room, there is a soldier standing guard on the other side. Little is known on how accurate most of the small details are, but considering that the actor looks the part and the room looks like it would work, it manages to convey a realism.
The same could be said for the battle scenes. The costume work on the film used actual outfits that the soldiers wore during the battles. Even the scene in which Lincoln gets assassinated feels staged in a realistic manner with the tension again rising from what was understood as common knowledge. The film looked very much the part in ways that Gone with the Wind made more beautiful and arguably less authentic. The title cards even came with foot notes citing sources on more specific moments and quotes that were scattered throughout the film.
For starters, Lincoln has been a popular figure in cinematic culture ranging from Young Mr. Lincoln (whose director John Ford appeared in this film as a Clansman) to the 2012 film Lincoln. The man for some reason has become one of the most perplexing figures to discuss. Still, his depiction as a leader wishing to make a difference is especially consistent and while he has only began to become more of an equal-minded figure in pop culture, he has always meant well. Likewise, his various staff members all directly look like their real life counterparts.
Beyond this, authenticity has been a subject that art has been wrangling with since. Does emotion trump facts? The Reconstruction Era segment of The Birth of a Nation is arguably more based on the white men's fear of blacks than actual truth. American Sniper has come under fire recently for being questionable with specifics. Still, some films benefit from stretching the truth and turning figures into heroes. Sergeant York was a film that made its World War I protagonist into a hero coming to terms with religion and war. The facts feel secondary to the themes of a man dealing with two opposing beliefs. Some stories are more questionable, such as Braveheart; a film notorious for being historically incorrect.
Still, the medium began on a very compelling note. It struck to be authentic in every way that a white man of the 1910's could be. Much like how modern audiences perceive the Vietnam War as being recent, the Civil War was very much in the consciousness of people seeing The Birth of a Nation. There was a responsibility to get the facts right and present something that, as President Woodrow Wilson said of the film, "history written in lightning." It is an interesting middle ground that remains a consistent battle whether it be something far removed like Gangs of New York or more recent like Milk.
|Scene from Tropic Thunder|
Just as much as there has been a certain reverence for The Birth of a Nation, there has been a cinematic rebellion against its notions. Until the 60's, the film was considered the first great movie. While there's plenty of evidence here to suggest why, it was also becoming troublesome with the rise of Civil Rights in the 60's and the simultaneous revelation that the film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK up until the 70's. To state a simple fact: The KKK was practically gone prior to the film's release. Whether it was coincidence or not, the decades following saw the membership rise from 100,000 to around five million. That alone is a damning statement sure to sink a film's legacy. When life imitates art in such a regretful manner, sometimes it's hard to embrace what was done right.
For the most part, The Birth of a Nation is a racist movie and the black face is especially troublesome. The black characters were demonized and made into sex-hungry maniacs. They were caricatures of themselves with various title cards written in broken English (for comical effect). While there were blacks involved, the predominant minority characters were indeed black face. With one of the more uncomfortable moments seeing a black man being tarred and feathered, it makes an actual case for black face being appropriate. Beyond the fact that it was present in the minstrel shows of the era, the film was cartoonish and no respectable black person would be associated with the film, regardless on the groundbreaking achievements. When scenes involve black characters having to be told to wear shoes while in a congress room are featured, there's an understanding of why this film will have trouble getting any theatrical showing nowadays.
Still, there's a sense that modern cinema has done wonders to subvert the expectations set by the film. As much as political correctness has become a normative since, there's the need to jab fun. While The Birth of a Nation didn't invent black face, it popularized it to a larger audience. In fact, most cases of race bending since have been problematic at best. There was the white Natalie Wood becoming the Latina Maria in West Side Story. As much as accuracy has been important, the sense of betting on minority actors has been a rather recent trend at best.
One of the most ambitious moves to tackle black face in the modern era comes in Tropic Thunder when an actor (Robert Downey Jr.) takes on a black role with a full surgical transition. Yes, it technically isn't any different from what The Birth of a Nation does and is only better in visual effects. However, the film is a testament to dissecting Hollywood trends by aggressively attacking its vast history. With Downey being the only actor in the Oscars' history to be nominated for a black face role, he managed to transcend the notion of racism and get to a deeper problem. The character was supposed to be a method actor and the jokes were more on the ridiculous dedication certain performers go to for accuracy. With another performer constantly criticizing his depiction of black people, it subverts the notion by pointing out everything inherently wrong with black face at any point in history.
The more noteworthy one comes in Django Unchained, which feels like a direct assault on The Birth of a Nation and its politics. In interviews, director Quentin Tarantino claimed that a KKK member was based off of John Ford. As someone who hated the film and called it ugly, he had a lot of opposition with Ford, regardless of the career he had since. The film itself is a take on blaxploitation pictures and features a ridiculous amount of violence and stylized camera angles. The first impression is to suggest that it is more of an homage to westerns than sharing any relation to a Civil War era film. However, it tackles racism in a way that feels directly relative.
For starters, there's the demonized black man in The Birth of a Nation. In Django Unchained, the protagonist is a black man whom the whites fear. However, he is more attacking their cartoonish racism and their dated beliefs that whites are superior based on cranial capacities. The film is challenging and full of racial discussion unlike any mainstream movie of recent years. It presents a conflicting vision of black culture and how it relates to the superior whites of the time. However, it is also about overcoming oppression in ways that feels meant to rewrite history. Then again, it should be taken with a grain of salt seeing as Tarantino also assassinated Adolf Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Still, Django Unchained is a film meant to assault the racist history of cinema. With the interview confirmation, there's some clear tie-ins to the Griffith classic.
|Scene from Selma|
Good luck getting through any The Birth of a Nation think piece without some apologies for the racism. While Griffith supposedly made his next film Intolerance as a response to the inherent racism that plagues his iconic work, there's no excusing how racist the film was. Of course, its depiction of the KKK and the rampant black face didn't help either. To say that sensitivity wasn't there in 1915 is a lie. The NAACP actually protested the premiere and tried to shut down various showings of the film in different cities. In fact, it is still present and makes showing it publicly all the more challenging, as there is the sense that it will encourage more outbreaks.
But the one interesting thing to note is that it has only been 100 years since the film. As much as it is to damn the film's flaws, it is more noteworthy to point out how society has evolved. With films like Gentleman's Agreement, the Oscars began to tackle relations on its basic level. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't too far behind to make it more directly about differing races. Even the interracial relationships between Latinos and whites in West Side Story was showing signs of progression. The standard bearer however of early progressive cinema remains In the Heat of the Night, which saw Sidney Poitier play a black man with power in a way that threatened the normative of the time.
From there, things have only begun to be more discussed and explored in an accessible and tolerable manner. While racism is still alive, the discussion of it has changed. Films like The Help were created to subvert the expectations of race in society and even made the blacks into sympathetic characters. 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture and reinvented how audiences approach the subject of slavery. Slaves have become sympathetic in the discussion of America's uncomfortably controversial history. Along with teaching the film and its original memoir by Solomon Northup in schools is a large step forward. Still, it has been present in films going back to The Color Purple and Amistad.
Cinema's current incarnation isn't actually that old and this small feat should be seen as a vast improvement. While 100 years seems long, consider other unthinkable feats in history. At the start of the 1700's, America didn't seem like a fathomable idea. However, by 1800, the story had changed. The nation was young and creating its own rules and regulations. It is very much like how cinema has operated. Thankfully, there has been a craft present since the early days to transform and alter to our pleasing. To assault The Birth of a Nation for being uncomfortably racist is important but shouldn't be specifically a bad thing. Only by acknowledging the problems can we evolve past them. To feel that the depiction of blacks is insensitive is to acknowledge how society has grown more tolerant of other races.
In fact, it seems oddly prominent to compare The Birth of a Nation to a more modern film: Selma. While they don't seem relative, both feel like integral films that were shown at the White House at one point. The rise of the KKK from The Birth of a Nation likely lead to many of the problems depicted in Selma. However, there's a difference in both where culture was 50 years ago (as depicted in Selma) and 100. The fear of blacks was beginning to subside and while the right to vote was more openly fought for in the 60's, it was sign of changing times. Blacks still faced oppression, but they were also fighting for change that had an everlasting effect.
The fact that there's people out there complaining about racial diversity at the Oscars shows some sign (even if I disagree on its basis) of progression as a nation. People care about depictions in cinema now and strive for even further accuracy in their works. If there is some legacy, it is that The Birth of a Nation taught us what we as a culture needed to improve upon. It will always remain an uncomfortable part of our lives, but at least we evolved to something more dignified. As evident by every example used in this essay (all of which were Oscar-nominated films), our culture has done wonders both technically and socially. Still, it is important not to forget The Birth of a Nation and its impact on the medium, even if it is hard to fathom sometimes.