Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Also known as: The Clansman 
Year:  1915
Country: U.S.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall

Based on: Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905)
Length: 190 minutes 

The close emotional ties between two families - one from the north, one from the south – are tested during the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction.

Prompted in part by big-scale Italian historical epics such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1912), Griffith’s breathtaking recreation of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction period was a massive box office hit, produced on a budget of $112,000 (roughly $2.5 million by today’s standards) and earning $50 million. Like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery seven years prior, Birth of a Nation represents a giant leap forward in storytelling and cinematography, including panning views, panoramic shots, night photography, localized colourization, and sweeping battle scenes involving hundreds of extras. It was also one of the first films to have an original musical score (composed by Joseph Carl Breil).

 Unfortunately, Griffith’s masterpiece remains plagued by the negative public reaction - then and now - to its sympathetic treatment of the Southern states during the U.S. Civil War and the underlying message that equalizing the races was not only unnatural but would lead inevitably to widespread sexual violence against white women. (Despite a failed attempt at the time by the NAACP to ban the film, public protests continue at modern-day screenings.) Linked to the controversy are the film’s repeated denigrations of African-Americans, their portrayal by white actors, and an unmistakable thumbs-up to the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation remains an important if vexing benchmark in cinematic history.

This is an interesting one to watch in the era of Lincoln, Django Unchained, and 12 Years A Slave. The sets and costumes are first rate. Realistic battle scenes abound. An early re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination is more chilling than any dramatization I’ve seen to date. 

But while I can deeply appreciate Griffith’s groundbreaking techniques and his influence on the evolution of cinema, and have little problem contextualizing Birth of a Nation in terms of the director’s time and Southern leanings, I found this film almost impossible to sit through. Length wasn’t the issue (hello, Wolf of Wall Street); it was the incessant and heavy-handed attempt to turn me into a white supremacist what did it, Ma. This is one of those (thankfully few) films that tests my ability to be an objective critic and a human being at the same time. 

Still, I think it’s an absolute must-see for everyone who wants to know how film has grown over the years, with the added bonus of watching an American filmmaker unapologetically expose the racism that was still very much alive more than fifty years after the nation's most destructive war formally brought slavery to an end.

Him: It’s time to watch the next movie on our list, The Birth of a Nation.
Her: Sounds good!

The movie starts.

8:40 pm
Her: Um...are they going to play crazy, over-the-top music through the whole thing?
Him: Well, it is a three-hour silent film. Guess it needed something.
Her (to the cat): I’m going to need a lot of chocolate.

Her: Is that an overweight white man playing the part of a black maid?
Him: Uh...yup.
Her: Jesus wept.

Her: So at this point I hate women, black people, horses and anyone north of the Mason Dixon.
Him: Pretty much. Hey, I just read that this film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.
Her: Exchanges eye-rolls with cat.

The film concludes its depiction of the Civil War.
Her: This is the end, right?
Him: Sure, Jim Morrison...of Part One!
Her: Where’s the chocolate?!

Her: Wow, white people in sheets to the rescue while their women sew new uniforms.
Him: Heartwarming, huh? Django Unchained déjà vu.

The film ends.
Her: Well, at least it had a moral. See? Even Jesus approved.
Him: Oh, America!
Her: I need a shower.

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