February 8, 1915
directed by D.W. Griffith
Perhaps it is anti-climactic for this story of One Thousand Movies to face the most controversial, the most offensive, the most pernicious movie, the main villain, the Big Boss, at #3. If the first two movies in this story, both from the French Republic, flirted with evil themes, this one fully embodies evil in what amounts to an ideological revolution. But in addition to the ideological revolution, the movie was a formal revolution.
David Wark Griffith’s great genius was to make a such a penetrating analysis of the art of cinema that he analyzed it all the way down to its principal unit: the shot. Before him, film was a collection of scenes, mere photographs of the theater. He shed so much of the theatrical structure that his body of work became, with minor adjustments, the very formula for cinema. The Hollywood narrative that we have all breathed our entire lives, and that informs how we create narratives in our own heads.
But in addition to these two revolutions, there was a third revolution. A revolution that while not technologically novel, changes a medium so thoroughly as to constitute a new medium. For this is the very first movie as we now understand that concept. The first Hollywood feature film. The first propaganda film. The first new media production for the Bourgeoisie, who now have entertainment worth the full two dollars per ticket. There had never been a popular art event like this ever before. Griffith is one of the few artists of modernity that can be compared with Aeschylus of Athens and Homer of Chios.
The twin revolutions of form and media do much to obscure the ideological revolution. This movie is three hours (or as much as you can sit through) of Pure White Evil Ideology, but presented in a way never before dreamed of, so as to render a critical viewer politically dumb. Not entirely successful, because initial showings were in fact bravely protested by the NAACP, YWCA, and other organizations. Supposedly Griffith, as well as star Lillian Gish, couldn’t even see what all the fuss was about. Surely it was just a movie, right? Aren’t Whites and Blacks portrayed both positively and negatively? Their inability to see the utter hatefulness in shot after shot shows us that ideology cannot be identified so easily. Ideology is our constant background screen, a completely blind set of assumptions that we fail to see even when it is explicitly pointed out to us.
Reading about the movie goes a long way to distract one from actually watching it. It helps that this second-most analyzed movie there is, and each source references countless other analyses and accounts. Birth of a Nation has been exhaustively formally analyzed, and each of the 1,610 shots has been numbered. Of all the text I encountered, my favorite is James Baldwin, from The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin begins with the distinction between Plot and Story. Plot is a resolution, a working out. Story, on the other hand, is a revelation. Birth of a Nation delivers an endless labyrinthine plot designed to obscure the Story, which amounts to mass murder. Mass murder, on what grounds? The answer is purity. In its quest for a nation’s moral purity through a policy of racial extermination, this movie becomes the first crucial piece of Fascist propaganda. The race hate is rendered far more explicitly, both visually and emotionally, than either of the most notorious antisemitic films, Jud Süß and Der ewige Jude, and this is America’s Movie. The shame of the race hate is our own.
Endless plot. No story. The cat and dog fighting in shot 54 is Griffith’s initial metaphor for the war, but the pure hostility of the bestial world, animal vs. animal, instantly removes any trace of politics. This is important, because the politics are ugly. The cause of the South was, after all, an attempt to build an American Aryan Patriarchy and stretch it out to the conquered Mexican territory. The Southwest was to be ruled as a pre-capitalist agrarian slave system, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act ensured that they could do that. The Republican Party campaigned on repeal, and they won in 1860. The Confederacy immediately seceded, the Union fought over its military possessions, and a full-scale Civil War ensued.
This war was different from the stories the soldiers had grown up hearing about. They had muskets, but now with metallic cartridges. They had a steam frigate, but now clad in iron, ramming the ships that were blockading the James River. It didn’t lift the blockade, but they did kill a few hundred people and got their point across. Industrial Capitalism was now in the business of mass death (to preserve a pre-capitalist slave society, of course). But the South’s cause was hopeless. They would have needed the Royal Navy to win, which they never received. Slaves were emancipated, free to sell their labor. The Radical Republicans occupied the South and continued the battle to impose Capitalism, along with Civil Rights, and were successful during the two terms of Ulysses Grant. In Grant’s last year, the 1876 election was won by one electoral vote by the Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden. To appease the Democrats in this dubious victory (imagine that), the forces of Reconstruction was removed, and both the Democrats and the Republicans abandoned the class of freed black men, who were disenfranchised and subjected to pogroms.
In 1912 about 15% of the American population participated in a presidential election that was a resounding victory for the Democratic Party. Woodrow Wilson became the first President from the Confederate states since Zachary Taylor. It was fifty years later, the South had finally risen again. Woodrow Wilson instituted a number of progressive policies, railed against the big business trusts, strengthened federal power, but he instituted Segregation in the United States Government. Birth of a Nation’s second half begins with a racist quote from Wilson. This is the sitting United States President, whom Griffith depicts as Philosopher-King. This is an unimaginable level of patriarchal respect, given recent representations of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
The Civil War itself is presented as heroic and triumphant for a brief 77 shots. Then we skip ahead two and a half years, to the raid on the southern hometown of Piermont. Blackfaced warriors invade and sack the Cameron house, followed by a scene of trench warfare presented gloriously but isn’t nearly as exciting as the raid. The field battle scenes have a strange quality though, because in 1915 there actually was trench warfare killing literally millions of people. The pro/anti-war stance of the film as a whole can be endlessly debated, but this is undeniably a film that depicts current events. This is a view supported by Griffith’s own remarks about his works. This guy was absolutely sure that his movies would be shown in history classes, even to the point of replacing old-fashioned textbooks.
After the first 536 shots of vile race hate, including the incredibly disturbing shot 517 where Flora rubs black ash into her raw cotton dress and smiles, the movie gets really strange. When the North wins the war and the Radical Republicans attempt to institute Capitalism and Civil Rights in the South, we return to the wise old man moderate Abraham Lincoln, who appears to be utterly impotent in any ability to hold the radical elements of his coalition. We know what is going to happen to him at Ford theater, and Griffith draws out the tension. Each title card lasts an eternity. 596 is the killshot, and we see the entire thing, multiple camera angles along the halls and seats of the theater capturing the evidence. Raoul Walsh plays Booth, and while the assumed audience reaction is shock and sadness, there is a palpable swagger to Walsh’s villainy that makes me think more than a few audiences would be tempted to cheer.
The second half is even more frantic and racist, as the occupied South is subjected to Civil Rights until the fed-up veterans form the Ku Klux, stage a thrilling ride of re-conquest, and we watch the first classic movie where the bad guys win. I don’t really want to get into the details. Is there any revolutionary potential to this film? Any way to root for the freed blacks, the Union army, the carpetbaggers? To cheer them during the raid and sigh during their final downfall? Any way to celebrate the destruction of a disgraceful system of oppression and the rout of a defeated ideological enemy? I don’t think so. All of the principal black and mulatto roles are played by white actors, and the blackface ultimately remove any hope of constituting a black subject amid the wreckage. Sure, actual black people were employed in the making of this film, playing slaves and freedmen in wide shots of the streets. Their faces do not always register on the film, their features lost as if punched out black holes in the celluloid. Unable to emote, only to work. This movie is pure fascist propaganda, which preaches an ideology of white purity and domination, under the strong lead of a patriarchal authority. The employment of cinematic violence was the final masterstroke in this pernicious plan. As Siegfried Kracauer noted in a letter to Seymour Stern, Griffith discovered cinema’s innate ability to portray the excitement of CROWDS, TERROR, and VIOLENCE. Violence is one of the central pleasures in the story of cinema, and we cannot reject it so easily. The ideology that provides the background screen to the cinematic violence must always be addressed, as the function of ideology is often to disguise existing violence or render it entirely visible. In this case, the ideology of this hundred year old film is so gross that it can no longer be disguised, and it is important to see all movies have their own ideology, potentially even more revolting than this one, though hidden with a level of sophistication that Griffith was only beginning to make possible.
- Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work: An Essay. Dial Press, 1976.
- Ebert, Roger. „Great Movies: Birth of a Nation“ http://www.rogerebert.com, 2003.
- Eisenstein, Sergei. „Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today“ Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda. Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Originally published 1944.
- The Griffith Project: Vol. 8: Films Produced in 1914-1915. Edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai. British Film Institute, 2004.
- Lang, Robert Birth of a Nation: D.W. Griffith, Director Rutgers Films in Print series,1994.
- Platt, David „Fanning the Flames of War“ The Daily Worker, 20 December 1939.
- Stern, Seymour „Griffith I – Birth of a Nation“ Film Culture 36, Spring/Summer 1965.
- Stokes, Melvyn. D. W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time – 2008
- Taylor, Clyde. „The Re-Birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema“ The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of United States Cinema. Rutgers University Press, 1996.