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"The Birth of a Nation" is one of the earliest feature-length films and
certainly the one film which is responsible for turning what had been largely
a short-film novelty medium into the feature film medium that we know today.
It is a real demarcation line in film history, although its partisans have
routinely overestimated its "firsts" (abetted by Griffith himself) and
underplayed its overt and obvious racism.
It is the story of a Northern and a Southern family, united in peacetime and
torn apart during the Civil War. There are too many characters and plot
points to outline here, but suffice it to say that the story is a complex
one.
As innovative as it was, it was informed by Griffith's experience as a
Southern man of the theater at the turn of the century. His racism was bred
into him by a bitter Confederate father and his society which supported such
a view. He was also a typical theatrical personality of the time. For all his
innovations, he was a Victorian who knew and respected the somewhat fustian
theater traditions of the time. Most of his films are a continuation of that
tradition, which is why he was considered so out-of-date during the Twenties.
The film is basically in 2 parts: The roots of and the Civil War and the
Reconstruction era. It is in this last portion that the racism of the film is
most apparent. Words like "Aryan" and a particular hatred for people of
"mixed blood" (mullatoes) characterize this section. Also, the Ku Klux Klan
(which was moribund at the time) is the undeniable hero of the film. The
resurgence of the Klan is generally credited to the popularity of the film.
Griffith had toned down much of the racism of the source plays and novels by
Rev. Thomas Dixon, but he was not unsympathetic to Dixon's egregious
prejudices. The film was the first national cause embraced by the
newly-formed NAACP. The film was controversial, particularly in the
abolitionist centers of the North. However, such distinctions did not affect
the general public which was astonished by the skill and power of the film.
It is important to understand the genesis and background of this work and to
present it in context, confronting the controversy squarely and honestly.
Censorship of such a film is unthinkable. One cannot understand the history
of film or society without considering it.
Gene Stavis, School of Visual Arts - NYC