Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Birth of a Nation

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - The Birth of a Nation

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released a masterwork, a full-length feature film with historical sweep, intimate detail, and a nimbleness unseen in cinema till then. Watching Griffith's short films at the beginning of this series, I was starting to find them tedious after a few minutes. Yet The Birth of a Nation, at over three hours, is never boring. It moves - hopping, skipping, and jumping across years and locations, yet keeping its focus on its central characters and themes, and taking its time when it needs to. There isn't a wasted moment in the whole film, and while some jump cuts may be the result of damaged film, there are certainly places where Griffith elides what is unnecessary and cuts in to punch up his point. The Birth of a Nation is a extremely tactile film, living and breathing in every frame. As we watch casual conversations unfold, sound would be superfluous; we're completely immersed in the moment without hearing what's being said. The actors give sensitive performances without wallowing in melodrama and Griffith uses space, camera movement, and cross-cutting expertly to play with our emotions and engage us in the action. In short, it's a tour-de-force.

It also tumbles into a terrifying darkness halfway through. Imagine taking a ride with someone who's a great driver, knowing all the shortcuts and making great time. Suddenly he turns demonic, careening off the road and taking you down a dirt path to God-knows-where: who is this psychopath and where did he come from? That's Griffith in this film. Not that the first half of the film isn't racist, but it's mostly too busy establishing its characters, building up the historical detail, and fighting the Civil War to bother itself one way or another about the black characters. However, once part two unrolls, we're thrust into the most primitive and chilling sort of reactionary paranoia. Suddenly, our reactions to the rest of the film are re-colored and Griffith's continuing expertise only leads us to question the brilliant fluidity of his technique; is it somehow tied in to the dark-age views he's espousing? Leftists who decry "bourgeois" filmmaking must love this movie; it makes their case for them.

But before we reach that point, we are immersed in the intricate tapestry Griffith has composed. The pompous northern Senator Stoneman is introduced in his armchair while his daughter, played by Lillian Gish, playfully lifts his wig to dust underneath. Right away we know he's a buffoon, but essentially a good man, if misguided. When we enter the mythical "Southland" Griffith opens the scene on a peaceful main street (which we will return to, in various incarnations throughout the film: trod by troops marching off to war, trampled by skirmishing soldiers, ruined by the aftermath of war, overrun by swarming carpetbaggers, etc.). A horse-driven buggy is moving away from us and characters have their backs towards the camera. We are peering into the past, but not quite there yet. Then a figure turns towards us, the expression on his face almost beckoning, and we're there: the grand old days of Dixie recaptured.

Later, Griffith's charm gives way to poignancy as the war sweeps in and overpowers everything else. One of the most effective scenes has the father opening a letter which announces his son's death. On his right, the oldest daughter stares into space mournfully, while the younger daughter and mother sneak up on his left, fearful of what they will see but determined to know. As the mother breaks down in sobs, she is escorted to a chair in the background, while the stoic father and daughter remain in the foreground. Finally they all move off to the corner of the screen, united in their grief. Staging like this would not have the same effect in theater, because here we essentially go from a close shot, reading each character's expression, to a more distanced view of a family turned inward in their shared suffering.

The war devastates not just the characters, but the fabric of the film itself. Cuts increase, the scope widens, and though we get a stirring bit of battlefield bravery by the Little Colonel, what follows is grim and bloody. Endless shots of corpses, smoke rising, red-tinted frames, all of this a million miles from the scenes of domestic giddiness which opened the story. It seems there is no returning to that innocence and in the aftermath of this sickening carnage the story and the characters need somewhere to go to focus their energies and renew their faith: a cause which can replace nobility on the battlefield and warmth by the family fire.

They find it in a primeval fear of the freed slaves who surround them and a pathological hatred of the mixed-race individuals who physically embody the South's fears of lost civilization (associated exclusively with white skin) and sexual abandon (the shot in which a black soldier lurks ominously in the background while two girls frolic in the woods is almost Lynchian in its acute air of menace). An absurd title card informs us that what we see is "not meant to reflect on any race or people of today." After this feint to delicate sensibilities, all the stops are pulled out. Later title cards will inform us that "the former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright" and in one write-up worth of the Onion, "Ku Klux sympathizers victims of the black mob."

The "black mob" that swarms the streets of this formerly peaceful Southern town is an odd mix of African-American actors, obviously white actors in dark blackface, and white actors with a dusting of bronze to suggest they are mixed-race. The third group invariably wear evil grins and their eyes bug out as they lick their lips lasciviously. Peculiarly, we see far more blackfaced actors in the second half of the film, as if the people in the first half had been shunted aside so that whites could come in and replace history with an overwrought mythology. The absurdity of sticking black actors and whites in blackface side-by-side has an almost self-reflexive effect, especially when we're told that certain whites in blackface are actually supposed to be whites in blackface ("white spies in disguise") unlike the other whites in blackface who are just supposed to be black... All this distances us from the characters and the situations, making us aware we are watching a re-enactment, and inadvertently subverting the film from within.

Indeed, much of what made the earlier sections of the movie work takes on an uncomfortable pallor here. Suddenly our focus on the northern and southern family seems absurdly elitist; we are supposed to sympathize with them when they're forced to wait while marching black soldiers don't stop to let them cross the sidewalk, or when a mixed-race politician dares to try and shake hands with a Confederate veteran. The horror! And we realize these characters we've been following and suffering alongside were always like this - enclosed in their own little bubble, moving like gods and goddesses on an elevated, Olympian plane. Griffith broke those unspoken rules which allow audiences to observe the privileged without feeling resentful.

And his formal tricks, as effective as ever, become uncomfortable in their success. Cross-cutting between a panicking white family trapped in a cabin, and the hordes of black soldiers outside, forcing their way in, all while the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue, we're instinctively excited and then repulsed by our excitement. Likewise with the still-nimble cutting and escalation of action, the alternation of shots, the sensitivity in the acting. Attached to material which mines the darkest depths of racial anxiety, sexual repression, and social elitism, Griffith's impressive arsenal troubles in its effectiveness. I'm reminded of the late 60s leftist incantations to "wake the sleeping beast" - provoking reactionaries to rise up from their postwar Great Society slumber, so that the revolution could come all the quicker. It's as if Griffith was secretly hearkening to avant-garde political filmmakers of fifty years later, the types who would like to link up manipulative filmmaking techniques with political repression and reaction. With the hindsight of 90 years in a post-civil rights era, the movie seems to be using the Reconstruction era to deconstruct itself.

Once we set aside the racial overtones, to the extent that this is possible, what Griffith was tapping into here is hardly unfamiliar. Just as an example, a couple recent films I've looked at fit nicely with his paranoid vision of a surrounding darkness threatening a troubled community, requiring real men to bat it down. In "Twin Peaks," with its discovery of a beautiful, pure-looking girl who has been corrupted and murdered, and the fearful elements of malevolence and disorder which threaten the town's peace, a figure of relatively unmitigated goodness, Special Agent Cooper with the FBI, steps in to fight against the evil. In The Dark Knight (whose connection to Birth of a Nation will be delved into in a follow-up post) we also get a threatened community, a villain who threatens to tear apart the social fabric, and a hero who steps down from above to protect the public from itself. Like the Klansman, Batman also happens to be a masked vigilante. All three of these works share a vision of evil and disorder as real threats to society, not something that can be dealt with through sociology or do-gooder liberalism; they must be confronted head-on, taken for what they are, and suppressed. The point is that Birth of a Nation's racial apoplexy may have (thankfully) gone out of fashion, but its fearful outlook and nostalgic longing for a safer, more comfortable existence have not.

As for Griffith himself, he seemed somewhat surprised and even unaware of what he'd tapped into here. Confronted with charges of racism, he fell back on that old standby, Colbert's "my best friend is black" (except in this case it was more like "my childhood servant was black"). Indeed, he seems to have thought of himself as a pacifist and idealist, and the beginning and end of the film wallow in lofty antiwar sentiments. Which makes the descent into outright hysteria all the more perplexing and disturbing. To atone for his perceived slight, Griffith supposedly re-edited the film but in doing so he elided a fundamental truth he'd tapped into (though not the truth he thought he'd tapped into): part of Birth's lingering power is the way it articulates and exposes very human fears, and shows how they can be displaced onto those who are "different" and "outside" of a conventional comfort zone.

At any rate, its aesthetic confidence and power is indisputable, and with his next work, Griffith would seek to top his technical accomplishments here, and tag on an anti-prejudice message to boot. That'll be in the next installment of "THE AUTEURS." See you there.

Previous: Biograph Shorts, Part One and Part Two
Next: Intolerance

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.


James Hansen said...

I really admire and love a lot of Griffith's work. The politics make this film difficult to deal with (which is why more peopla re comfortable heaping praise on his other majors works such as "Intolerance" or "Way Down East") but without a doubt this film is extremely fluid and has some top notch performances. Its hard (impossible?) to discuss the film without confronting the overwhelming racism. Alas, "Birth of a Nation" is a landmark film, and a perfectly executed one at that.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, every time I watch it I think "this isn't so bad" during the first half and cringe during the second. Since I'm trying to view it as part of Griffith's overall trajectory and style I was jotting down notes while I watched - and I can see now that all the notes for the first half centered around form, and the notest for the second half focused on content.

I'm looking forward to seeing Intolerance again - I think it's been about 10 years.

Sam Juliano said...

Movie man:

After reading this magnificent piece, I am convinced you are in that "upper etchelon" of blogsites critics, but I've suspected as much for a while. I also just noticed that you have given the 'Father of American Cinema' comprehensive treatment, with reviews of ABRAHAM LINCOLN< SALLY< INTERLERANCE, et al. I am a huge fan of INTOLERANCE and BROKEN BLOSSOMS especially, but BIRTH is one of the most (historically)significant films in the history of cinema. I concur with you that the movie never lapses into tedium, and there is 'living and breathing' in every scene, and that war devastates 'not only the characters, but the fabric of teh film.' And I congratualte you on this:

"They find it in a primeval fear of the freed slaves who surround them and a pathological hatred of the mixed-race individuals who physically embody the South's fears of lost civilization (associated exclusively with white skin) and sexual abandon (the shot in which a black soldier lurks ominously in the background while two girls frolic in the woods is almost Lynchian in its acute air of menace). An absurd title card informs us that what we see is "not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."

Of course the film developed editing and other techniques, and Griffith was maligned with anti-Negro bias charges because he told the film from the southern point of view, but that's a charge that hasn't withstood scrutiny as you have presented here in this complex and scholarly thesis that deserves far more than just a summary analysis.

I thought the re-enactment assertion 'subverting the film from within' was sascinating too.

Batman, eh?

This essay is staggering.

i want to say more but am leaving with the family now to see EARTH.

Joel Bocko said...

Just saw this comment, Sam. Thanks for dropping by (2 months ago). I have been hoping to put up a directory of posts and inviting people to comment on old ones, but hopefully I don't miss them like I did yours.

Anyway, I have been debating whether or not to include this movie in my 150 "favorite great movies" list. I don't really want to, because of the racism, yet I have to admit it holds my interest better than a lot of contemporary films - and I find it's a masterfully woven work. I think it's also Griffith's masterpiece, and repeat viewings of Intolerance and Broken Blossoms only seems to confirm that Birth of a Nation is the director's most aesthetically and narratively satisfying film. But it's hard to get past the repulsive social values. Ah well, we'll see where it winds up...

Doug's Blog said...

A great essay Joel. This is a film that is both a rancid racist polemic at times and at other times one of the most stunning achievements in the whole experience of American film-making. The battle scenes at the Siege of Petersburg and the assassination of Lincoln seem like eerie video-cams taken by some time-traveler. The Silas Lynch figure in the film is a real piece of work as is Gus, the black "renegade" played if I recall right by a white actor Walter Long. Seen as a work of art, it dazzles. Seen as an essay about the fear of the other and the romance of a gravely unjust society predicated on racism, it is repellent. That tension is at the least a reminder of how far in the moral abyss many Americans still were fifty years after the Civil War.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, one of the most amazing aspects is that the Civil War was a living memory for many in the early days of moviemaking. And even for those like Griffith, born afterwards, it was still alive, secondhand, as say the 60s is for someone my age. "It's like history written by lightning," President Wilson said (I paraphrase) - "and my only regret is that it's all true." He was right about the first part, dead wrong about the second. In Mark Cousins' Story of Film, he mentions an experimental film in the 2000s in which the filmmaker draws diagrams and scribbles all over the ill frame, layers of artifice upon artifice. I'd like to see that sometime.

Incidentally, Richard Brody had a piece on Birth recently which I liked very much. The comments, all critical of him, were head scratchers: some accused him of being an apologist for racism, others (racists themselves) of unfairly attacking Griffith. Neither accusation was true. 100 years later, the film continues to divide:


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