Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation has quite the dual reputation. Everyone talks about its technical expertise, its stellar performances, its sheer scope and spectacle. Everyone also talks about how staggeringly and blatantly racist it is – it celebrates the Ku Klux Klan, it features actors in blackface and it drew complaints from the NAACP at the time of its release. So I knew that watching it was going to be tough. But I made myself keep an open mind when I watched.
And I think the open mind made everything even worse.
Parts of the plot are actually quite complex (at least, compared to the twelve-minute Great Train Robbery). Our story mainly concerns two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, who stay friends throughout the film. Phil Stoneman and his brother are buddies with the two oldest Cameron brothers, and during a visit south at the movie’s start, Phil takes a shine to the older Cameron sister Margaret – meanwhile Ben Cameron is taken with a picture of Phil’s only sister Elsie. While the kids are running around down south, the elder Stoneman, an abolitionist congressman, is coming under the sway of his mixed-race housekeeper.
The Civil War temporarily divides everyone – each set of brothers enlists with the Union and the Confederacy in turn, with the war claiming the younger brothers (who die in each others’ arms). Ben and Phil run into each other as well, when Ben leads a charge on the Union outpost defended by Phil’s squad; when Ben is wouned, Phil gets him safely to an army hospital in the North, where by chance he is tended to by Elsie and makes a bid for her affections. The feeling is apparently mutual – Elsie visits Abraham Lincoln to make a special appeal for a pardon for Ben.
So the families are friends again at war’s end, with a double romance even in the air, and the southern Camerons even applauding President Lincoln. But the elder Stoneman – wholly under the influence of his social-aspirant housekeeper, as well as a mixed-race schemer named Lynch – wants to go even further with promoting a change in race relations, and siezes his chance after Lincoln’s assassination. And thus the next twenty minutes are an alt-right stereotype of “what Reconstruction was like”, featuring scenes of newly-freed slaves running rampant in the streets, drinking in Congress, stuffing ballot boxes and shoving white people off sidewalks. A new law permitting mixed marriages encourages a black soldier to seek out the youngest Cameron girl, Flora, and ask to marry her – and she completely freaks out at the idea, runs into the woods and jumps off a cliff.
Ben uses her death to rally the initial Ku Klux Klan, gathering them to find the soldier and “give him a trial” (read: lynch him) before dumping his corpse at the doorstep of the new state governor. The governor – who happens to be Lynch – outlaws the Klan, arrests Ben, and makes his own bid for Elsie. After much consternation, the Klan dares to re-form and come to the rescue, freeing Ben and fending off Lynch. The whole thing ends with a double wedding – Cameron to Stoneman in both cases – and both couples spending their honeymoons contemplating an eventual end to war.
I’d heard about the blackface; so I was surprised to see African-American actors in several scenes. Granted, they were living out every worst stereotype about slavery and the Reconstruction South imaginable, but they were there. Then again, they were also extras; the speaking roles were all given to people in blackface. The speaking roles also didn’t seem like great prizes – the lot of them were either servants or soldiers, either comically buffonish or malevolently manipulative.
However, the Stoneman’s housekeeper was strangely sympathetic. Her whole motivation was a desire to be a respected lady like Elsie; she is snubbed by a visiting Congressman early in the film, and in a later scene takes great delight in forcing him to treat her with the exact forms of courtesy that he denied to her earlier in the film. It’s clear you’re supposed to think poorly of her – she is so caught up in “pretending to be a lady” that she neglects her work, and in another scene it looks uneasily like she’s trying to seduce Stoneman into doing her will – but frankly, I found myself actually siding with her, and thinking of her as a sort of Lady MacBeth, with her own ambitions coming into play to influence a man with more power.
It’s clear Griffith put a lot of work into this. The battle scenes were all carefully choreographed, with some scenes lifted directly from contemporary paintings of certain battles (Griffith helpfully points them out during the intertitles). And this film is also the birth of a lot of the conventions of film that we take for granted today – closeups, two-shots, even a score.
It’s also clear Griffith knew how some of the racial elements were coming across. In a disclaimer near the beginning, Griffith states that the film is not meant to be a depiction of any one race as a whole, and throughout he takes pains to point out noble moments from “good” African-Americans – Ben is rescued from jail with the help of the Cameron’s servants, and in a scene showing the Camerons grieving Flora’s death, Griffith includes a shot of the two servants huddled together in tears, with the caption “none grieved more than these two”.
But those are small comfort in a film that depicts all of the freed-slave voters as ignorant, greedy, motivated entirely by their ids. They drink, they smoke. They go barefoot in Congress. They stuff ballot boxes. They don’t outright rape, but you sense that Griffith would have shown this if censors would have let him.
Griffith also includes a pre-amble quoting President Woodrow Wilson, stating that “white men were roused by an instinct of self-preservation” in the south, and towards the end, an intertitle describes a pair Union soldiers who come to the Cameron’s aid as a case of “The former enemies of North and South united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”. Towards the end, a scene depicting “the next year’s election” shows a line of white-robed Klansmen glaring threateningly at a mob of would-be black voters, who all turn and slink away. That was real fun to watch in these days of restricted access to ballot boxes…although watching the Klansmen dump the lynching victim on a doorstep, with a sign reading “KKK” pinned to his shirt, was far worse.
….I’ve been following the career of the actor Colman Domingo for some time now, after we did a show together early on in his career. This year, he was in a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – which the filmmakers titled Birth Of A Nation, in an ironic nod to how Griffith’s film both launched the movie industry and the modern Klan in one fell swoop. They were trying to “reclaim it”, they said. I suspect that their choice may be lost on the average moviegoer, but I’m thinking I may want to watch it as a kind of palate cleanser now.