When I had the intention of writing a review of the highest-grossing films of a year, I thought that it would be a fun exercise into looking films of over 100 years ago and also, a pretty lengthy feature. It all seemed grand and then I followed through with the idea and looked at what would be the first film. It seems box office takings were not counted until 1915 and a rather unfortunate film is the first to be reviewed. Shall we?
Let’s not ignore the obvious…
For all intents purposes, this review will not be like all of the others that I will do in this series, in fact, it will be rather short in comparison. I had thought about just completely ignoring it and starting at 1916 and maybe at some point I will remove this post from existence and further glances at this series will say it started in 1916. It is an awkward one for me to write as I imagine it is for anyone to write about nowadays, or by all accounts even then, considering the uproar.
I felt that it is appropriate also not to ignore the context and story of the film, just because it is so controversial. By ignoring it, I feel I am making it more visible, so let’s start with the obvious on this one. The stories and beliefs (however much he tried to correct his mistake with this film in subsequent films) that DW Griffith had are ever-present, in fact, it is hard to imagine another film that so plainly wears the creator’s thoughts on its sleeve as much as The Birth of a Nation.
As a result, it is disastrous, from a filmmaking standpoint even 105 years ago it made no sense. Here is an example. The character of Gus is one of the many major missteps the film takes. It could have just focused on the events during the Civil War and post-Civil War instead of going where it went, but then that wouldn’t be faithful to The Clansman… Anyway, for some reason in the film the blacked faced (Bloody hell) character Gus chases the Southerner Flora Cameron through the woods in the most offensive way possible for a character to act.
Why on Earth Griffith decided that Gus would run and hunch over like an ape I will never know. Making him act this way and to then (for a supposed captain) not notice that it was wiser to leave Flora alone, but to chase her to the edge of a cliff and allow her to fall is exhaustingly dumb.
Are there positives?
A lot of people (far too many in my opinion) will state that while the story is worthy of being called racist and an atrocity to society, that the actual film techniques are worthy of high praise. (There is a reason The Birth of a Nation has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) It was the first time that close-ups, massive war scenes etc were used on such a scope and from a technical side they may have a point, it is the founding father of cinema as we know it many says. With that said, it really doesn’t matter as the positives of the technical side cannot override the context of the film and the intentions that came from it.
I know a number of years ago a writer for The New Yorker tried to defend the film for those merits and many of the positive reviewers also try to go down this route, but you simply cannot and should not, it found a line and flew over it. For all it’s brilliance from a technical standpoint it is a racist film and should be considered as such.
Should it be banned?
Truthfully, I think it shouldn’t, there has always been that push to ban the film, to make it forgotten for the rest of time. But it shouldn’t be banned, it should be used as a prime example of what Hollywood and cinema used to be like. To simply remove it for the content brings a mythical air to it. It should be an education tool at this point, something to show how far we have hopefully come in cinema and as a society. It will always evoke emotion and the only hope is that over time it will just be known as the film that we have all since passed by and nothing more.
Is it still an important film?
The Birth of a Nation is an important film. It just isn’t for the right reasons, and that is okay. To know what is right, we need to see what was wrong and jeez is there so much wrong here.
It is frustrating as someone who loves to write about the film to have to discuss this film, I had thought I never would have to, but as mentioned, this feature came to my head and it would have felt like too much of censorship to just straight up ignore the fact that the film exists. I want to be clear with the audience that read these and by talking about its issues and how actually when I carried out a little bit of research on the film, to find so many positive reviews or articles, simply because of the technical aspect of the film, was disconcerting.
Surely the writers would not use this as an excuse to wax lyrical about The Birth of a Nation, but they have and they did. They wanted to show their love and appreciation of Griffith who, whether we like it or not helped change cinema forever. None of it does because of the massive shadow covering the film. It should be noted that Griffith never fully apologised for The Birth of a Nation when the reactions and protests began. Instead, he worked on Intolerance, which depending on who you ask was made to appease the masses or a way to give an honest apology via film to the world.
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