D. W. Griffith – The Birth of a Nation

Or as I will call it, “Racism shot fantastically.” Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is equally disgusting as it is a well shot film, for its time. I will not go on and on about what makes this film horrific, that has been done and is easily understood. Instead, I will just make a quick statement. Regardless of whether the director meant to or not, this film is highly disgusting in its racism and glorification of slavery, the KKK, and the Confederacy. Now with that said, let’s talk about why this film is worth watching. Seeing as how this film came out in 1915, there were many technological advances that were not around. Cameras were still a new concept and there are many techniques of filming that are used today that were explored in this film. For that reason, I agree with Joshua Klein’s statement about this film in his mini article featured in the 1001 movies You Must See Before You Die, “one of the most revered and most reviled films ever made.” The shots that Griffith filmed were something to be admired. For example, there is a scene in which a soldier is chasing a woman through the woods. In this scene, Griffith utilized deep space to show the woman running away as the soldier is in the foreground chasing her. In another scene, Griffith uses a long shot to show the long row of Clansman riding towards the town. Even as the men are riding, Griffith uses another technique that is used in every film, tracking. The camera tracks backwards as the men are riding towards it. All of these techniques are common place today, but in the cinematic world of 1915, they must have been truly original and ingenious. Another technique that is used in The Birth of a Nation, that is often used today, is crosscutting. Shots are edited together to show multiple lines of action at the same time. Shots of the Stonemans hiding are cut with shots of the soldiers coming to find them. This may not seem too inventive considering how often it is used, but with no prior point of reference, this was a┬ámarvelous tactic of film making. Griffith furthers his exploration of camera techniques by adding panning, filters, masks, super impositions, dissolves, and fading (not just cutting). Although some of these techniques were used in prior films, most were new to audiences. Just imagine, you go to the theater to see a historical epic, which is a new concept for film at this time as well, and see these amazing scenes with fantastic and large scale battles with action on all fronts. It really is a living story. Despite the fact that this film is infested with overtly racist scenes and themes, this movie should still be watched, if only for its cinematic merit and contribution to the art form. With that said, it is a 3+ hour silent film, with a nice orchestral score to accompany it. And, despite the character’s placement in the film, I did enjoy “The Little Colonel’s” performance in the film.


Next Week: D. W. Griffith – Way Down East (hopefully less clan)