In a word, The Birth of a Nation has a bad rap for good reason. But its reputation for racism is in close competition with its own reputation for being an outstanding example of innovation in early cinema; this is also for good reason. If nothing else, it did an impressive job of fusing the genres of epic and romantic drama at a stage when it probably wasn’t common. These days filmmakers are incapable of doing otherwise, and their attempts at subtlety rarely succeed. While a degree of parallelism between something like a war and an imperiled couple in love is warranted and even called for, one can easily drown out the other or they can become intermingled, leaving a mess of a film.
Early on, a kitten is placed on top of a puppy in the puppy’s basket, a foreshadow of coming conflict between same but different entities. Griffith takes a step forward with the image soon thereafter with two men. As a kitten was placed in a dog’s basket, so a northern family enters the territory of a southern family. While the visit is taking place because of an existing friendship between the two families, immediately two young men begin bickering, though they quickly reconcile.
There is a very earthy feel to the southern family and home. Griffith zooms his camera on the cotton picking on the plantation being done by black slaves. During a scene on the plantation, the foreground has the white families standing and talking, well-dressed; while in the background, hunched over in soiled clothes are the slaves. Griffith does not seem unaware of the distinction he is making with his camera. One group is high, the other low; one is close, the other far; one is the focal point, the other overshadowed. Temporality is also in view. The scene opens with the slaves in the field, and the whites enter and exit with the slaves remaining when the scene ends.
While reading a headline in the newspaper regarding the imminence of conflict between the northern and southern states, the southerners are deeply concerned while the northerners seem care-free. Immediately following this, the aforementioned two young men fight again, this time more physically then before. As before, they make up, and the northern family departs for home.
The portrayal of Lincoln has been commented on heavily elsewhere, and it’s fairly obvious that Griffith glorifies him at every opportunity. While the politicians around him fuss and worry, it is Lincoln alone who sits down, quietly pondering, symbolizing the sort of thoughtful contemplation and desire for peace that we would expect from a wartime president.
This sort of epic silent film is notably different from watching, for example, a Charlie Chaplin film. Whereas in a comedy the focal point is typically front-and-center, Griffith illustrates numerous happenings at once on the screen, demanding a lively and attentive eye.
A few notes:
-“Scalawag white captain influences negroes to follow his orders.” – blacks really to blame?
-2 north & south chums die together in battle – face-to-face in the mud; northern/southern families both grieve
-trick photography in torching of Atlanta – divided screen
-mother’s appeal to Lincoln: “The Great Heart”
-“The end of state sovereignty” – at surrender, 2nd time mentioned in film; not regarding slavery
-southerners receive news of Lincoln assassination – “Our best friend is gone.”
The State House of Representatives scene is provocative. Supposedly there were 101 black representatives and 23 whites. I should look up the historical accuracy of this. There is an interesting fade-in, from an empty assembly room to a room full of black representatives. While in session, the black representatives drink liquor and take of their shoes, with a generally apathetic vibe toward the meeting. One of the few decisions to which they come is that shoes must be worn in the meeting. Interracial marriage is approved, to the great joy of the majority of representatives; the black men wildly celebrate, and thereafter the film can’t help but show sexually frustrated black men trying to rape or elope-by-force with young white women.
“The new rebellion in the South” is the term coined for the blacks who resist the KKK. Those black men who support the work of the Klan are termed “faithful souls.” I can’t help but point out the Norbit scene in the film, when a very round black woman takes out two white men via body slam. Nothing new under the sun.
The suspense sequences were impressive, with the brother seeking his lost sister while she is pursued by an ill-willed black man, while simultaneously the KKK is coming to the rescue of a woman about to be forced to marry the “Mulatto” leader. Griffith’s use of montage during this sequence is admirable for 1915, but it would be another ten years before Eisenstein the master would showcase his gift for the effect in The Battleship Potemkin.