Archive for May, 2011


Why I Thought I Might Get Kicked Out of My Movie Meetup Group

Lillian and Dorothy Gish, stars of "The Birth of a Nation" as well as offscreen sisters

Last week, I had the pleasure of leading the monthly DVD discussion of the Movie Meetup group that I belong to. I picked the DVD we were to watch beforehand and discuss later at the actual meetup. I’m happy to say that I did not get kicked out for what I chose, although I thought it best to ask everyone if they were OK with it (they were), and we put a disclaimer up on the event’s web page. And what did I have the group members watch? Oh, a “little” film called “The Birth of a Nation.”

I wanted to discuss “The Birth of a Nation” not only because of its infamy or the fact that our group needed to watch a silent film or it’s the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War; I also wanted to do something that was a bit challenging. Despite its racist character portrayals, plots, and ideas, I think “BofN” has some redeeming qualities as far as its historical significance and its narrative and stylistic innovations

In his “Great Movies” essay on “BofN,” Roger Ebert says that the film “did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America.” Like “The Triumph of the Will,” “it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film and even something about evil.”

Some tidbits I learned while researching the film:

  • “BofN” is considered the movie that marks the birth of modern American cinema, #44 on AFI’s list of “Top 100 American Films” (1998), part of LOC’s National Film Registry
  • According to Variety, it’s the highest grossing film of the silent era at $10 million or $216 million in today’s money; ticket to film was $2 (or $20-43 in today’s money); most profitable film in history until 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”
  • Released in 1915, directed by D.W. Griffith, based on novels “The Clansman” and “The Leopard’s Spots” and the play, “The Clansman,” all by Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.
  • Griffith’s wife starred in one of the play’s touring companies
  • Griffith’s father was a Confederate officer in war and shared war stories with his son
  • 1915 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Civil War films were popular then and capitalized on the spectacle of war and conventions of the genre, such as the suffering of characters
  • Griffith appeared in Civil War plays as a young actor, he directed 11 Civil War-themed one-reelers, which sharpened his skills at handling large crowds and battles scenes, he directed 1 or 2 of these one-reelers per week
  • “BofN” was the first movie to be shown at the White House to President Woodrow Wilson, who supposedly said the film was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so true.” Later, Wilson backtracked from the quote, if he had even said it at all
  • “BofN” was originally titled “The Clansman” at its premiere, but Griffith changed it to “The Birth of a Nation” to reflect his belief that the U.S emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction as a unified nation
  • According to Ebert, some of the most technically accomplished scenes are also the most disturbing, such as the scene near the end in the log cabin, which includes groundbreaking use of cross-cutting but the racist content is difficult to watch
  • To portray some of the more prominent black and mulatto characters, white actors wore blackface, mostly when coming into direct contact with white actresses
  • Griffith pioneered techniques that we take for granted but that enthralled and possibly confused audience members back then: deep focus, jump cut, cross cut, facial close ups, special effects, night photography
  • In battle scenes, Griffith used pyrotechnics to cover up empty spaces in the field
  • Griffith relied on lithographs and photographs to make battle scenes authentic, relied on drawing of events like Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination
  • There were widespread protests upon the movie’s release, it was banned in several cities, riots broke out in some places where it was released, and there were instances of white-on-black violence
  • Actual clansmen in uniform were used to publicize the LA opening
  • The resulting outcry caused Griffith to make “Intolerance” the following year (1916)
  • “BofN” caused black filmmakers to respond with their own films
  • “BofN” inspired a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan; as late as 1970s, the KKK was still using the film as a recruitment tool; Dixon apparently repudiated the new clan, but Griffith would play the film for them wherever they were
  • To her dying day, “BofN” actress Lillian Gish claimed that the film wasn’t racist
  • The film’s sequel, “Fall of a Nation” (1916), directed by Dixon, wasn’t a success and is considered a “lost film”
  • Many future actors and directors, including John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, Donald Crisp, and Milton Berle, claimed to have worked on “BofN” but it’s not certain if that’s true

Even though I disagree with its ideas and portrayals, I believe that “The Birth of a Nation” should be available for people to watch uncut. But as with harrowing historical reminders, such as concentration camps and “The Triumph of the Will,” we need to be able to put such artifacts in context through sensitive and thorough interpretation.