The Birth of a Nation

May is Non-Alliterative Silver Screen Classic Movie Month!

The Birth of a Nation. David W. Griffith Corp. 1915.

Before watching the movie:

This is the oldest movie you’ll ever see on Yesterday’s Movies, because it’s more or less the oldest movie. I know there are earlier motion picture narratives, but this is historically important for reasons I shouldn’t need to rehash here.

It’s odd that I was never shown this in any film classes, but the reason is probably the length and debatably the racial issues. These are also reasons I’ve been holding onto this until creating this special event. Because it’s not a party until somebody burns a cross, I guess?

After watching the movie:

Against the backdrop of the friendship between the Cameron family of the south and the Stoneman family of the north, the Civil War breaks out. On a visit, Ben Cameron falls in love with a picture of Elsie Stoneman, then the regime of Unionism attempts to oppress the proud South. After the war, with Lincoln assassinated, the Union imposes a harsh Reconstruction upon the rebel states, resulting in freed blacks disenfranchising the whites and voting in an entirely black, oppressive government. In response, whites bravely don hoods and ride as the just and noble Ku Klux Klan, striving to liberate their Aryan brothers, while Elsie awaits a forced marriage to the local black leader.

A variety of things made this movie seem interminable. The three hour runtime, the ads it was punctuated with thanks to the service providing it to me, and the silence all played roles, but a lot of it was that the first half is mostly just history. Part one is a staging of the Civil War from the Confederate point of view. A few important story notes happen, but mostly I was just waiting for the battle scenes to end and the story to begin.

From a technical perspective, it’s difficult to see the movie’s significance outside of its context. Griffith codified many techniques of cinematic storytelling here, but at times it still looks more like The Sneeze than The Avengers. I noticed some effects that were much more advanced than I would have expected for the time, but then double exposure was probably well known to photographers by then. Pretty much all the black characters are white actors in blackface so variable the main black villain looks like an Italian with a heavy tan.

I can overlook the jokes about disorderly blacks in here. The freedmen in the legislature drinking, eating fried chicken, and propping their bare feet on the desk are jokes that were a lot less uncomfortable then than they are now. The point of the story seems to be that if African-Americans get any rights, they’ll oppress the white folk unless driven back by the Klan, but Griffith was so troubled by people reading his film as racist that he made the more sympathetic Intolerance, so I guess that was just an unfortunate side effect. The overall theme of the commentary Griffith gives in the intertitles is the ugliness of war and conflict, so I suppose the moral he wanted people to see from the black insurrection is that both sides should have been more respectful and conciliatory. Is the Klan intimidating the freedmen away from the polls a moral victory, or just the lesser evil winning?

This is a film I’d like to respect from a great distance, much like most other critics, but possibly for somewhat different reasons.


Watch this movie: with the perspective of the times, and a bottle of No-Doz.

Don’t watch this movie: as justification for bigotry.

One thought on “The Birth of a Nation

  1. Voltech May 11, 2012 / 1:12 pm

    “he freedmen in the legislature drinking, eating fried chicken, and propping their bare feet on the desk”


    Wow. That…uh, that sure sounds like a movie there.

    In spite of that, it DOES sound like an interesting movie, at the very least. Granted I wouldn’t watch it in front of anyone ever (and even then if you gave it to me for solitary viewing in an underground bunker), but as a film that gives a theoretical glimpse into certain mindsets and possibilities, I can’t fault it. Well, not TOO much.

    Regardless, that was an interesting read. Thanks for the post.

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