While I watched “The Birth of a Nation,” I thought of many ways to start this review–believe me, the thing is over three hours long, so I had time.
Then I’d see something else, and I’d have to rethink my previous brilliant opening.
For example, I was going to mock that one of the white actors in blackface neglected to paint his upper arms. It’s like he had a really dark farmer’s tan. That was going to lead into how ridiculous it was that there were actual black people in the film, but the truly heinous caricatures–the sex-crazed animal, eating watermelon and chasing white women, e.g. (seriously not making this up)–were all played by whites in blackface. The southern family we follow–Colonel Cameron’s–even have the obligatory large black woman maid, who was played by a highly padded white woman in blackface.
So this was one choice.
Then there was the part where the post-Civil War state government in South Carolina had a huge black majority–only 23 white members were elected. This majority, of course, was due to sinister black men with cartoonishly shifty eyes (again, blackface makeup on a white guy). So anyway, with the new black Legislature, it was a party in the State House. One man took off his shoes, and put his gnarly feet up on his desk. (The chair quickly passed a law requiring shoes during session). Other black representatives were flagrantly drinking from flasks, and one was dancing around in the South Carolina State House of Representative waving a giant piece of fried chicken, from which he took frequent bites.
One of their first laws? “Inter-racial marriages are legal.” I’m fine with interracial marriages. I think two people should be allowed to marry, period. But in “The Birth of a Nation,” this law led to black men turning into animals, trying to hunt down white women for mounting and matrimony. Seriously: they made that eyebrow thing, where you leer at someone, and make your eyebrows go up and down, as if to say, “Let’s head to the cloakroom, and make the two-backed beast,” as Shakespeare described in “Othello.” (I also like “Let’s go heels to Jesus,” from Woody Harrelson in “Zombieland,” but it’s only funny when he says it)
Anyway, my mind flashed to the scene in “Blazing Saddles,” where Cleavon Little comes out from behind a rock and says to a bunch of assembled klansmen, “Hey. Where the white women at?” In “The Birth of a Nation,” it was that kind of awful, just with no humor or parody.
So, I was going to mock that for my big opening.
Then, this happened, and it was too good to pass up. The ruling thug mob of white carpetbaggers and blacks from both north and south, took over the town of Piedmont. They beat up white people, occasionally killed someone, and that was par for the course. So one day, the ruling mob of blacks and yankees was doing their thing, torturing and shooting people, when the accompaniment segued from its current theme to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as the KKK descended en masse to save the day! It was just like Robert Duvall’s Air Cavalry group in “Apocalypse, Now,” flying out of the rising sun to neutralize a hostile Vietnamese village. Only with a few hundred klansmen on horses.
The Reconstruction following the Civil War was truly a difficult period in American history. Many of the things depicted in this film actually happened. It’s the way they’re portrayed that becomes problematic. Roger Ebert has a great quote in his “Great Movies” review of “Birth of a Nation”:
Like (Leni) Riefenstahl’s “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. (see: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030330/REVIEWS08/303300301/1023)
“The Triumph of the Will” recorded the Nazi Party’s huge rally at Nuremberg in 1934. The ways Leni Riefenstahl shot the film–the techniques she developed–were revolutionary then, and are still used today. Her film was beautiful–what she recorded was horrible; she didn’t create Hitler’s cult of personality, but she made him look like a god.
To me, this argument is simultaneously relevant and irrelevant for D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” He didn’t create the Civil War, nor did he invent racism in South Carolina. He didn’t create carpetbaggers, freedmen, and scalawags working together to punish the South for daring to secede. He also didn’t write “The Clansmen,” the novel upon which his film was based.
Like Riefenstahl 20 years later, Griffith invented countless film and editing techniques that were brilliant and revolutionary. There’s one shot, for example, where we see the first two riders in the massive KKK force, riding to the rescue. They’re moving at full gallop, as are the literally hundreds of horses behind them. Griffith caught that action, and this earth-shaking column of horses, all in focus, with amazing depth of field. Before this, cameras didn’t move in films. Even today, this shot is remarkable, just for how far back the action goes. No CGI. Hell, I don’t think they had running water then.
So we can draw a few conclusions. First, both Leni Riefenstahl and D.W. Griffiths made films that were technically brilliant, and whose techniques are still in use today. Second, both Riefenstahl and Griffiths were making films about loathsome subjects. Griffiths did because he wanted to; whereas, basically, Hitler told Leni Riefenstahl to make “Triumph of the Will.”
To his credit, D.W. Griffiths spent much of his career trying to make amends for this film. His future projects were more upbeat and full of 1970’s Coke commercial love for mankind.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a great film: technically, and as a story, it is truly epic, telling the tale of two powerful families during Reconstruction. The families have contact before the Civil War; friends meet on the battlefield, and die together, one Union, one Confederate. It is sweeping and beautifully made, with a lovely musical score.
A tweak here and there, and we wouldn’t be flipping out over fried chicken in the State House, and leering, watermelon-eating, sexual animals leering around corners at white girls.
Griffiths had control over those parts of his film. Oh, and Mr. Griffiths? Love your poster.