Movie Review: Birth of a Nation (1915)

A centennial went by earlier this month with essentially no fanfare. On February 8, 1915, D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Birth of a Nation, premiered. Almost immediately there were protests about its racism. Protests and complaints have continued to this day, to the point where if you happen to include it in a list of Greatest Films Ever (for its many technical innovations), you are almost obligated to apologize for it.

I’ve wondered… The movie is a century old. Shouldn’t the passage of time have dulled its effect? Given that almost every time it’s mentioned, someone cries out “It’s EEEvil!” and tries to ban it from being shown, you have to wonder just how many of those complaining about it have actually seen it. If you’re going to try to keep people from seeing it, how are they ever going to know just how evil it is?

Well, the thing’s in the public domain. You can watch it in many places online, without fear of violating piracy laws (like that’s ever stopped you). I decided to see for myself just what all the fuss is about. So I loaded up my computational engine with coal, got myself a delicious beverage, and sat my butt down to watch it (and take notes).

The first thing to note is that it’s over three hours long. That’s a heck of a lot of movie, and more than most contemporary audiences are going to want to handle. Thankfully, it’s divided in two parts. The first part covers the bucolic antebellum South, the Civil War, and the assassination of Lincoln. The second part covers Reconstruction. In a way, it’s a lot like Gone With the Wind in that aspect. Speaking of which, does anyone call out GWTW for its racist depictions?

Secondly, there are a couple of versions out there. For its second run, Griffith added some extra titles at the beginning pleading for the same tolerance given other works of art. Eh, whatever. That’s the version I watched.

Anyway, the first half is pretty benign. It’s focus is more on the horrors of war, and practically clubs you over the head with that message. There’s a lot of actors in blackface and depictions of minstrelsy. Not really pleasant to this modern eye, but it took decades for Hollywood to move beyond it. I can let it go as a characteristic of the era and move on. As far as the depiction of the raid by a black regiment on the happy little town of Piedmont, well, black troops from the North did see action in South Carolina. Can’t speak to the accuracy of the raid as depicted; it seemed like a basic “smash and grab” for anything of possible military value (guns, ammunition, food, etc.). I don’t think you can call that racist.

One other thing for the modern viewer to take note of is that acting in silent movies, especially in the early years of cinema, is vastly different from what we expect. Moviemakers hadn’t quite yet gotten used to the fact that films are different from stage plays, and call for a different style of acting. You don’t need to broadly emote so that the people in the last row can tell what you’re doing (even if they can’t hear you); you can hold back a bit and trust the camera to capture your emotions. It seemed to me that Mary Alden, who played the maid Lydia Brown, hadn’t figured that out yet. She hams it up so much you’d think that her character had some serious mental problems.

Oh, you’ll also note that a lot of scenes take a heck of a lot longer than it seems necessary. There’s really more time than needed to show how the Cameron and Stoneman families are happy and content, and how life in Piedmont is some sort of agrarian idyll. Even I found that I had to fast forward through some scenes.

The battle scenes, though, are really epic in scale. You can see some of the artifice in a few of them, but remember that this is decades before computer graphics. Those are all real human beings in those massive battles.

Once we return from Intermission, we really get into the heart of the movie. Now that blacks have been freed, carpetbaggers swoop down to start up “Get Out the Vote” action. This is where the villain of the movie makes his appearance. Silas Lynch (George Siegmann, looking like a deranged Jackie Gleason) is the mulatto protege of Senator Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, as a thinly disguised Thaddeus Stevens). Lynch maneuvers his way into power, and gets himself elected Lieutenant Governor.

During all the rallies, you see many signs with the phrase “40 Acres and a Mule” (which has a real good story behind it, but that’s for another time) and “Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage”. It’s in that latter sign that the racist message of the movie is revealed. If you give blacks equal rights, they will seize power and then come after your women! Oh noes! Back then, miscegenation was a huge deal. But these days, I think it’s really, really unlikely that people are going to be scared shitless by the idea of mixed race marriages. Heck, even same-sex marriages aren’t scaring many people anymore.

Now it’s time for the Klan to make it’s debut. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) decides it’s time to put blacks back in their place. He gets the idea after seeing some black children get scared by two white kids hiding under a sheet. My notes at this point tell me that the first time the Klan appeared in the movie, they were bad guys. That’s all I wrote; I’ve got no recollection of the details. But I will give you this – the Klan’s costumes are completely goofy. White robes – even on the horses – with things that look like circular versions of the Norwegian flag on them, and cloth helmets with two-foot tall spikes on them. I guess they expected their enemies to collapse from laughter.

With all that out of the way, it’s time to get serious. Gus (Walter Long), a presumably former slave and freshly-made Captain in the local militia, sets his romantic sights on Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh). He stalks her into the woods, and rather clumsily pitches woo to her. Now he does merely state that legally they can now get married, and that’s about all he does before getting slugged by Flora, but if you want to call it attempted rape, go right ahead.

Flora, who is a bit of a ditz, then shows that she is an utter failure at Running Away. Instead of heading back to town (she has a comfortable lead, so there’s no reason she can’t do that and avoid Gus), she heads into the hills and winds up atop a high cliff. Gus has followed her, and happens to be blocking the only pathway off the precipice. Her pristine youth in mortal peril, Flora leaps off the cliff to her death.

Only she’s not quite dead yet. Somehow, the fall of some fifty or sixty feet onto uneven ground doesn’t kill her instantly. Her brother Ben, who has been following her, catches up with her as she lays on the ground. It doesn’t say much for Ben’s intelligence, much less the medical science of the day, that the first thing he does is pick her up and cradle her in his arms. You’d think maybe that after a miraculous survival, you wouldn’t want to cause further internal injuries by moving her about willy-nilly?

At this point, Flora expires (duhh….) in Ben’s arms. For me, whatever emotional power this scene might have had is ruined by this title card:

BOAN1

“Opal gates of death”? Seriously?

Flora, with her dying breath, presumably blamed Gus for her death. Ben did see another figure up there with her, and he does later find Gus’ clothing along the path to the cliff, so it’s fairly easy for the creator of the Klan to put the evidence together and round up a lynch mob.

Flora’s demise is the one scene that is usually held up as the key example of the racism in the movie. It’s the one people wanted Griffith to remove. He didn’t, and with good reason. It’s the key to the entire remainder of the movie.

Gus is captured and killed by the Klan; his body is then dumped on Lt. Gov. Lynch’s doorstep with a note from the Klan; troops are called out to round up Klan members; a search of the Cameron home uncovers a Klan costume; Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken), the head of the family, is arrested; with the help of his family he escapes and they seek refuge in a small house; the militia surrounds the place; the inhabitants “valiantly” fight for their lives while the Klan musters a force to come to their rescue.

It’s all done quite well, but it does drag on a bit. I found myself practically yelling at the screen, “Get on with it already!” It’s like the militia had agreed to go easy on the Camerons in order to give the cavalry the chance to come over the hill at the absolute last possible minute. Or perhaps the Klan stopped along the way for directions, or maybe pick up some coffee and donuts or something. That last battle scene really did go on….

Oh, and meanwhile, Lynch was putting the moves on Elsie Stoneman (Lilian Gish). You can understand him; even by today’s standards Gish is one lovely lady! But of course, even a mixed-race person cannot be allowed to sully the purity of a white maiden (*gag* – I feel icky just writing that…).

Anyway, the Klan comes to the rescue of all the whites just in the nick of time. In the final scene, thanks to the presence of a phalanx of white-robed Klansmen, blacks are intimidated away from the polls in the next election. And rightness and goodness have been restored.

Hooray.

It’s a pretty good movie overall, even if it is a bit longer than it probably needs to be, and it does leave you feeling uncomfortable (at least) afterwards.

It is often noted that thanks to this movie, the Klan came back from the dead as it were and enjoyed a resurgence that lasted for decades. I read that they used it as a recruitment film well into the 1970s. However, it should also be noted that the film gave the nascent NAACP a “First Cause”. Just a few years old when the movie came out, they’d been trying to figure out just where they really wanted to go with the organization. Protesting the movie helped unite the factions within the organization, and got their name out there.

So I guess it isn’t completely without merit. That’s a left-handed compliment if ever there were one.

I suppose if you want to watch it for more than academic interest these days, you can get together with your friends and make a drinking game out of it. Every time you see something racist, take a drink. The worse the racism, the more you drink. If anyone finishes the movie as sober as they were when they began, well…..

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