68) The Birth of a Nation (1915) Dir: D.W. Griffith Date Released: March 1915 Date Seen: March 9th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5
If you were to watch the only the first half of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) knowing only the vaguest details of its infamous politics, you’d feel cheated. It’s possible to gloss over the first 90 minutes thanks to its sleepy, florid story of the inseparable bonds connecting everyone white at heart that were forged by the fires of the Civil War. Even the film’s second half begins innocently enough, insisting that the events we are about to see, many of which the dastardly intertitles tell us are based on “historical facsimiles,” do not reflect contemporary people or events. Griffith’s pretense of gentility holds up until John Wilkes Boothe leaps onto the Ford’s theater stage and mutely bellows “Sic Semper Tyrannis." After that, the racial apocalypse offended film scholars and laypeople alike have promised breaks out.
The Birth of a Nation can ostensibly be aesthetically defended for all the reasons Griffith’s shorter fantasies about tough women in tight corners I’ve seen can be but its politics, which are the main reason why it and he are so fondly remembered, cannot. Its muddled worldview cloaks its white supremacist mentality underneath the catch-all fantasy of a united nation, which gives the film a veneer of respectability that prizes Abraham Lincoln but poopoos the darkies that he had such a yen for.
Granted, I can’t tell you objectively tell you if Caucasian Reconstruction Southerners were actually a “helpless white minority” but any chance that I might sympathize with the impotent racism inherent in Birth flies out the window when it's used to justify such insipid caricatures. Seeing 101 freemen outnumber the 23 seated old white guys in the House of Representatives might have been innocent enough to be laughable but it's not considering how it's used as one of the cornerstones of the film’s argument for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Forgive my delicate stomach but racism as a sickly semi-humorous punchline is pretty noxious.
The KKK are depicted as knights in white billowing armor, “the answer to the black and Carpet baggers” that are just taking back what never belonged to the bad blacks—apparently, the slaves that side with their masters are good. To valorize their activities is like how Macagni made the mafia look chivalrous in Cavalleria Rusticana but at least the mafia don’t excuse their actions by crying wolf. Ignoring the associations the KKK evoke outside of Birth’s plot, Whitey’s fears of the jeering Black Scourge that threatens to overtake his way of life remains one of the most absurd popular paranoid fantasies to date (black men taking up the white man’s sidewalk, denyin ‘im the right to vote, marryin’ his sister before he can…white power!).
If Griffith’s story were compelling outside of its fiery rhetoric, the wrong-headed politics might have been negligible. As it’s not, all I can offer is more rote indignation.
Note: awesome photo stolen from http://www.the-spine.com.