The Birth of a Nation (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur
DISC 1: 1080p High Definition transfer from archival 35mm elements, includes new music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (2011), in 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, plus spoken introductions by D.W. Griffith and Walter Huston (including the newly rediscovered intermission sequence).
DISC 2: Is a DVD copy of Kino’s ‘‘Griffith Masterworks’’ edition of the film restored by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates in 1993. It contains an orchestral score adapted in 1993 from the original score by Joseph Carl Breil in 2.0 Stereo and The Making of “The Birth of a Nation” documentary (24 min.) Produced by David Shepard and compiled and written by Russell Merritt.
DISC 3: Special Features include a filmed prologue to The Birth of a Nation (1930, 6 min. Featuring D. W. Griffith and Walter Huston), Civil War Shorts directed by D. W. Griffith: In the Border States (1910, 16 min.), The House with the Closed Shutters (1910, 17 min.), The Fugitive (1910, 17 min.), His Trust (1910, 14 min., courtesy David Shepard, music by Robert Israel, performed by the Biograph Quartet), His Trust Fulfilled (1910, 11 min.), Swords and Hearts (1911, 16 min.), and The Battle (1911, 17 min.), plus New York vs. “The Birth of a Nation,” an archive of information documenting the battles over the film’s 1922 rerelease, including protests by the NAACP, transcripts of meetings, legal documents, newspaper articles, and a montage of scenes ordered cut by the New York Censor Board, excerpts from a The Birth of a Nation souvenir book (1915) and several original programs.
KINO on Video continues to maintain its reputation for preserving cinema’s rich history with the recent release of D.W. Griffith’s alternately brilliant and maddening The Birth of a Nation (1915) on Blu-ray. Any previous restorations are completely overshadowed by this latest release, which offers the sharpness of picture that has become the norm for KINO’s Blu-ray versions of early cinema. While the film’s controversial content remains distracting, the restoration allows for a clearer and more accurate appreciation for The Birth of a Nation as cinema.
When embracing cinema’s history, there are a handful of staples that are rudimentary to even the most basic frame of reference. One of them would most certainly be The Birth of a Nation (1915). Three parts movie milestone and two parts racist dogma, The Birth of a Nation is also both a starting point for epic film, and a culmination of Griffith’s myriad of cinematic ideas, each of which had been investigated in the series of short subjects the director had done leading up to this epic feature.
Griffith’s amazing strides in the cinematic process via The Birth of a Nation have long been difficult for many to comfortably appreciate, because his story, based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novel The Clansman, is so disconcerting, it overshadows our attempts to look past the story’s bigotry and appreciate the technique. Plus, the film’s public domain status has resulted in a further limitation due to prints with missing footage and grainy images shown at the wrong speed. Even as far back as 1969, film historian Kevin Brownlow wrote in his book The Parade’s Gone By:
Expecting an earth shattering masterpiece, students are shown a scarcely visible museum piece. They cannot know that it bears about as much relation to the original as a shriveled husk bears to a once fabulous butterfly. Thus, having a restored a best-quality-possible Blu-ray edition of this magnificent cinematic achievement is welcome and essential for aesthetic and historical reasons.
D.W. Griffith’s gradual discovery of what he could do with cameras and editing can be traced via the short subjects he did for Biograph early in his career. Films like the decidedly anticapitalist A Corner in Wheat (1909), as well as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), which investigates crime and gang activity, contain some of the most elemental techniques for producing narrative film, including cross-cutting to compare and contrast different themes or close-ups that enhance the menacing tone of the characters.
When Griffith tried to convince Biograph to let him attempt a film with a longer running time—Judith of Bethulia (1914)—the studio balked, believing that a film that ran an hour or more would be too much of a strain on viewers’ eyes. Griffith left Biograph and formed his own Majestic Studios, producing films to be released through the Mutual Corporation. The first was The Clansman, based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation.
In the nearly one hundred years since this film was produced, it has stirred up enormous controversy for its use of hackneyed stereotypes in depicting African Americans as lazy, shiftless, and violently oversexed, and for presenting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who ride in and thwart the takeover by freed slaves. This has, unfortunately, overshadowed the film’s aesthetic and historical importance. Even the most learned film historians carefully qualify their enthusiasm for Griffith’s work, almost ashamed to praise one of the most important pioneers of the motion picture.
All of the excuses have been duly noted—that Griffith was a Southerner, born in 1875, whose understanding of the world was from a perspective we don’t fully and accurately comprehend; and that he made amends with Intolerance, a grander and far more open-minded epic that was released the following year. We are also fully aware of the anger that remains, judging by the boycotts and protests that still occur when the film is scheduled at silent-film retrospectives, and the removal of Griffith’s name from the Director’s Guild of America award in 1999, after it had been won by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, John Ford, and Ingmar Bergman since its being instituted in 1953.
The Kino Blu-ray release cannot remove the controversy, but certainly augments our aesthetic appreciation, allowing us to see the film as close to its original release status as possible, including the hand-colored tints that enhance the image so effectively. The amazing battle sequences, often shot from overhead, with pockets of movement surrounded by the smoke of artillery fire, remain as impressive now as they must have been nearly one hundred years ago. Griffith makes hundreds of extras seem like thousands, simply through the use of camera and editing.
The cinematic brilliance in Birth of a Nation can be discerned at several levels. Shooting on location instead of a sound stage, shooting at night, and utilizing the iris to eliminate surrounding space, are among the filmmaking innovations that have since become basic techniques. Griffith’s cameraman, the decidedly underrated Billy Bitzer, effectively captures the director’s vision with close-ups to define character, cross-cut editing to build dramatic tension, and multiple angles to propel the narrative.
Griffith’s composition of shots, where he places objects and people within the frame, how he presents crowds, and the way he explores the possibilities of deep focus, are all just as impressive as his oft-lauded battle sequences. Piedmont’s farewell ball, for instance, shows the frame crowded with dancing couples, from head-and-shoulder shots in the immediate foreground, to the barely visible tops of heads well into the background. The dancers’ movements are carefully blocked as they waltz about without impeding each other’s space. When a family receives a telegram indicating one of their own is killed in the war, Griffith places the parents in the background and the siblings in the foreground, each carefully stationed so that they are all on camera in different areas, reacting in their own way.
The assassination of President Lincoln, for example, opens with a tight iris shot of two people and expands to a high-angle shot of the entire Ford Theater, with the audience applauding in their seats as the play begins. Griffith edits to a closer shot of the president’s arrival, switching to a frontal shot of Lincoln and his party seated in their box enjoying the show. Griffith uses the iris to center upon assassin John Wilkes Booth, allowing minutes to pass before the shooting, effectively building dramatic tension. The authenticity of the assassination, Booth’s jump to the stage, and the subsequent reaction to the dying president is enhanced by an overhead shot of the once sedate, applauding audience bustling nervously in reaction to the disruption. It is one of the most remarkably filmed sequences in the film.
Any discussion of the unsettling aspect of the narrative is usually in reference to the second part, which deals with postwar Reconstruction. Birth of a Nation is dismissed because the Ku Klux Klan is depicted as a heroic organization whose hooded members ride in and save the confederacy. The film actually works hard to justify this conclusion, offering offensive details as to how freedom for black Americans will be the ruin of Southern life. Griffith shows post-Reconstruction blacks voting themselves into higher governmental positions, and then making a shambles of the legislature. In a famous scene, blacks are shown in the House of Representatives smoking cigars, taking swigs of liquor, eating fried chicken, and propping their bare feet up on the desks. Bills are passed for everything from interracial marriage to forcing white men to salute black men as they pass on the street. This triumph for black Southerners culminates with a black man’s violent pursuit of a white woman. Griffith casts white actors in black face for all of the principal roles, while actual African Americans are used only as extras.
Griffith’s filming of the Klan riding in and saving the day is presented as a battle not unlike the war itself. Black citizens are armed as soldiers, camped out in the brush or lurking in cabins to thwart the invaders. Griffith edits between tracking shots of pursuing Klansmen on horseback to a medium shot of black men firing guns, along with occasional cuts to terrified white Southern families embracing crying children. Griffith’s tracking shots of the Klan running blacks out of town, and the eventual parade march are presented as another, more focused restoration. When the next election rolls around, the very presence of the Klan keeps blacks from even leaving their homes to vote.
At the time The Birth of a Nation was initially released, Southern-born President Woodrow Wilson declared that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” The NAACP protested its distribution and screenings of the film were banned across the northern Midwest. The film also helped revitalize a dormant Ku Klux Klan, which reformed in 1915 and evolved into its largest membership during the 1920s, another postwar period filled with unfounded fears about foreigners as well as blacks. As recently as 2004, then-President of the NAACP’s Los Angeles chapter, the late Geraldine Washington, stated that the film had “no positive value whatsoever,” spearheading a protest regarding a proposed screening by the late Charlie Lustman in that city’s Silent Movie Theater.
In a response to the 2004 protest, Boston Globe writer Renee Graham, who is African American, stated:
I’m not wholly convinced that a screening today of The Birth of a Nation would fuel racial violence, if only because it’s hard to believe that bigots or separatists possess the required attention span for a three-hour black and white silent film.
Dismissing the historic and aesthetic significance of The Birth of a Nation due to its content brings to mind other acclaimed-yet-controversial films, from Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will (1934) to Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The latter, an angry,low-budget semidocumentary riddled with sex, violence, and antiwhite sentiment was at least tangentially made possible by the work of the early black filmmakers who were inspired to produce their own movies in response to the perspective offered in The Birth of a Nation.
Even if we set aside the technical achievement of The Birth of a Nation and its importance to cinema’s history, to dismiss it simply because of its offensive, wrongheaded perspective sets a precedent that could extend to editing every older film featuring a comically ethnic stereotype, from the Irish cop to the Italian vegetable man who speaks broken English. Comedian Mantan Moreland, he of the “feets do yo’ stuff” method of comic relief, once stated, upon being asked about racial stereotyping, “I was a comedian. If I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, I wouldn’t have been funny.”
Appreciating the tremendous cinematic importance of The Birth of a Nation does not mean we approve of its content. But the content, as offensive as it might be, should not result in the film being relegated to the dustbin of history. As Rachel Graham’s article states:
Let younger generations see exactly what The Birth of a Nation is, if only to prove that as a nation we aren’t so fragile that a film can again shatter us.Perhaps it can provoke those thoughtful conversations we so desperately need about where the nation has been, and where it still must go.
The new Kino three-disc edition is the best way to see The Birth of a Nation on home video. This box set not only includes the most recent fully restored version of the feature, but also David Shepard’s 1993 restoration. Disc 2 also includes Shepard and Russell Merritt’s documentary The Making of Birth of a Nation. To create a greater frame of reference, Disc 3 offers several of Griffith’s early Biograph short films with Civil War stories. Films like The Fugitive (1910) and The Battle (1911) are interesting blueprints for what would become the filmmaker’s masterpiece. In The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow stated, "Some of Griffith’s films of 1911 and 1912, shown against the product of other companies, seem even more extraordinary than The Birth of a Nation, for they break completely new ground in their use of the medium"
A movie milestone like The Birth of a Nation should be a part of any library or comprehensive collection. Its controversial theme and Griffith’s filmmaking brilliance each offer important perspectives about American cultural history. It will certainly continue to impress and enrage film scholars and historians for years to come.
James L. Neibaur is a film historian and educator who has written ten books on film.
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.