Jump to content

Recommended Posts

I have such mixed feelings about this film. I am glad I watched it. "The Birth of a Nation" is a well made, sweeping tale of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era that followed. It is beautfully shot and well acted. The battle scenes are compelling and well constructed. It is also the most racist thing I have ever seen. No book, film, television show or any other form of entertainment I have witnessed comes close to this level of racism.

The film is three hours long, and it is divided into two sections. The first part ends with the assasination of President Lincoln. There is racism in the first half, including white actors in blackface portraying black characters, but it is the second half that takes the film's racism to unbelievable levels. 

I think it is important to see this film to realize how far America has come in race relations, and to contemplate how far we still need to go. Simply refusing to see a film such as this because of the blatant racism is denying this part of our history. Yes, it is an ugly part of American history, but racism existed, and still exists, and this movie brings home that message in a way that will make comtemporary viewers squirm. 

Roger Ebert wrote an excellent review of the film. In it, he compares "The Birth of a Nation," to another D.W. Griffith film, also starring Lillian Gish, called "Broken Blossoms." Ebert prefers the latter, which prompted me to watch two silent films from the early 1900s on the same night. I also preferred "Broken Blossoms," and highly recommend seeing it.

And I recommend watching "The Birth of a Nation" as well. It was the first film screened at the White House, by President Woodrow Wilson. It is historically significant. It is also downright difficult to watch at times, particularly because D.W. Griffith did not see himself as a racist, and sadly, neither did the American moviegoers who embraced this film and its message in 1915.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
14 hours ago, DIShGo said:

I have such mixed feelings about this film. I am glad I watched it. "The Birth of a Nation" is a well made, sweeping tale of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era that followed. It is beautfully shot and well acted. The battle scenes are compelling and well constructed. It is also the most racist thing I have ever seen. No book, film, television show or any other form of entertainment I have witnessed comes close to this level of racism.

I saw this film thirty years ago, and your post prompts me to see it again.

The single finest philosophy about "whether or not to engage" things such as "Birth of a Nation" came from my friend and boss Bob Greenspun (who is Jewish, and an extreme opera lover) regarding the operas of Richard Wagner - particularly the ring cycle. Wagner was pre-Hitler, but essentially just as much of an anti-semite; yet, his works of music are of the same level of importance to opera as "Birth of a Nation" is to film - maybe more so.

His one-question decision was disarmingly simple: "Does watching it (or, in the case of Wagner, paying *big money* to watch it) assist in the harm of Jews? Or, in the case of "Birth of a Nation," of Black Americans? If the answer is yes, he will not partake; if the answer is no, he will appreciate it for the high art which it is, while at the same time being fully aware of the ethos which plays such a defining role in the author and/or material.

To this date, I have not a heard a better, more elegant formula for determining such a thing. Not watching the film won't undo the things that were done, and as long as you aren't directly or indirectly supporting racism, ignoring it does no good.

"Birth of a Nation" is one of the most important movies ever made, and to deny its existence is to prevent the scholarly study of film. I, too, would not watch it if it supported the act of racism, in even the smallest of ways - in my opinion, it does just the opposite.

Of note: A Wagnerian opera has never been performed in the modern state of Israel.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm thirty minutes into this movie (for my second viewing in thirty years - I'm watching the 2002 Kino Restored Edition, btw, which is free with Amazon Prime), and the thing I'm having the most trouble with is being able to tell which person is in which family. The Stonemans (from the North) and the Camerons (from the South) look a lot alike. Fortunately, I'm familiar with a lot of the governmental names, so that part is okay, but it's the two families themselves that I'm having trouble distinguishing from each other, especially the children.

Another example: The part where "The scalawag white captain influences the Negro militia to follow his orders," 35-minutes into the film - I'm not exactly sure where they are. They're breaking up a house, and they're shooting a couple people, but where are they? I suppose it's somewhere in Virginia, since the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) has already taken place, but why would they break up a house in Virginia? And why is Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper), from the South, going down to hide in the cellar with two other girls? I *guess* the Negro militia is fighting for the North? But why were they formed in South Carolina? The movie said it was an "irregular force of guerillas," so that would make the most sense. It's a fact that 180,000 black men fought for the North, but (surprisingly) there were also some who fought for the South - the thing that's throwing me off is that "the militia" was formed in South Carolina. The secondary definition of "scalawag" (see the first sentence in this paragraph) is a white Southerner who fought for the North, so that would explain all of this - but I always thought "scalawag" was a term that applied only after the Civil War was over. Anyway, if that's the case, I hope the black militia whips some ass. This also reminds me that I've never seen the film "Glory," but have always wanted to.

I had a vague recollection of the Stoneman and Cameron sons "meeting again," as they promised they would, and that's one of the most powerful scenes in this film (and there are a *lot* of powerful scenes in this film). Racism or not, this is a *great* movie - yes, the blackface, and the terrible racism that's going to come in Part Two is unthinkable, but it's still a great movie. It also reminds me that Southerners aren't that much different than Germans in World War II - yes, they were fighting for a lousy cause, but they were just kids, and it was their way of life, dictated to them from on high. On the other hand, this "Heritage, not Hate" BS when it comes to flying the Confederate flag is no different than Germans saying "Heritage, not Hate" when flying the NSDAP flag - they've had plenty of time to learn, and should know better by now.

We've all heard songs that we know very well, but can't name - there's one playing at 44:10 (during Sherman's "March to the Sea") that is positively driving me batty. It's a famous piece, maybe by Tschaikovsky or someone of the sort, and I can't name it - I've heard it a million times and it's killing me. It's the 'March of the XXX" or something like that (it's not Marche Slave or Parade of the Tin Soldiers - it's probably not even Tschaikovsky, but somebody please help me). Ah! You know where I recognize it from? The Fritz Lang movie "M" - Peter Lorre whistles it. And thank Goodness for Google and YouTube because I would have never guessed this.

It is one hell of a thing, seeing a portrayal of Abraham Lincoln only *fifty years* after he was assassinated - there were plenty of people alive who remembered him when this film was made - there's also some irony that one year after this film came out, the United States would enter World War I, which was the deadliest war in history (although in terms of United States deaths, the Civil War was deadlier still).

One thing I really like about "Birth of a Nation" is that they don't feel the need to display every line of dialogue - for example, shortly after the surrender at Appomattax, Austin Stoneman (a fictional character, by the way, who was then leader of the House of Representatives) met with President Lincoln, and a panel says, "The Radical Leader's Protest against Lincoln's policy of clemency for the South." Then, there is fully 42 seconds of film, without interruption, of the two men meeting and discussing the issue - the viewer isn't insulted by being force-fed every line of dialogue; instead, you rely on context and body language to interpret what's going on, before an important bit of dialogue finally pops up. These are the original D.W. Griffith panels, because they're framed with "DG" at the bottom, so this general concept had nothing to do with the 2002 Kino edition.

To me, this meeting is one of the strongest scenes in Part One of the film, as two men on the same side have radically opposing views on how to treat the South; Stoneman has a Genghis Khan mentality, wanting to treat the South as a group of conquered provinces; Lincoln replies by saying, "I shall deal with them as though they had never been away" - a Prodigal Son mentality. It bears repeating that Stoneman lost his son in the war, which understandably influenced his position.

Ugh: Screenshot 2017-01-31 at 12.30.48.png

The fact that I'm still so upset by Lincoln's assassination 150 years after the fact means either that I really love this country, or that I really love President Lincoln, and a quick soul-searching session tells me it's the latter. Well, it's both, but the individual is generally more important to me than the entity.

One of the most distressingly ironic things I have ever seen on film - in my entire life - is the gleeful reaction of the North (Representative Stoneman and his scheming, hand-wringing, grinning wife), and the South (who lamented, "Our best friend is gone."). Think about that.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Intermission --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And now, I must steel myself for the racism DIShGo referred to in Part Two - Part One was racist, but no worse than any of several Bugs Bunny cartoons I've seen in the past. Yes, I've seen this film before, but I watched it in South Carolina, thirty years ago, and it's not going to have the same impact on me now.

Given the racism that is to come, this panel, displayed at the very beginning of Part Two, is significant. It may not excuse things, but it's ... something, and you can rest assured that Richard Wagner would never have done something similar before one of his operas: Screenshot 2017-01-31 at 12.51.26.png

Andrew Johnson, who assumed the Presidency after Lincoln, was Vice-President, not just a Senator - yet, I can't help but think that Stoneman is a caricature of Johnson, as he looks just like him. However, in real life, Johnson was a lenient Republican who favored a gentle Reconstruction of the South, very much opposed to the Radical Republican that Stoneman is, who favors a hard, forced Reconstruction, so perhaps the only caricature is in appearance alone.

I"ll tell you what though: the midterm election of 1866 put the "race" in "the race." Yeah, it was a bad joke, but sometimes even a bad joke is better than no joke.

Trivia: Which five pairs of U.S. Presidents share the same last name? Mouse over for the answer: Roosevelt, Bush, Adams, and the two hard ones - Johnson and Harrison.

Aside from blackface being despicable, it's generally done very poorly from a technical viewpoint - more often than not, I just can't tell if someone is supposed to be black or not: Even if they are, they're so *clearly* white, that I can't overcome the poor makeup, and I feel like one white person is talking to another. Does this guy look black to you? Screenshot 2017-01-31 at 18.47.44.png

I see a distinct link between the formation of the KKK in this film (which is no doubt fictionalized), and the actual formation of today's terrorism - a class of people feels downtrodden, with no legal remedy, so they resort to terror and violence to scare law-abiding people - just because the laws don't work out in their favor. I have a feeling this statement might cause some controversy, but I think it's also true. Please don't interpret this paragraph as me supporting either the KKK or terrorism; if you do, you don't understand what I'm saying. I think white slave owners got exactly what was coming to them, with blacks taking control of the government - you sow what you reap. They couldn't handle it, so they resorted to murder and terror - if someone can tell me the difference between a 3 AM lynching and blowing up an airplane, I'd like to know what it is.

With less than 40 minutes remaining in the film, I disagree with people who say that "Birth of a Nation" glorifies the KKK (*). It says that the KKK is "the answer to blacks and carpetbaggers." Well? It *was* the answer to blacks and carpetbaggers, but that doesn't mean it was the right answer - however, it *was* the answer. Maybe something will come up in the next half-hour that explicitly glorifies what these people are doing, but I haven't seen it yet - and it's not like the KKK didn't happen.

How ironic that the KKK's final cavalry-like entry into town is played to Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

(*) ETA - I guess Jesus looking over everyone pretty much dispels that theory, and yes, the end of the film quite literally glorified the KKK - how awesome would it have been if Jesus, who makes a cameo appearance at the end of the film, had been black? That would have been one of the greatest moments in the history of cinema.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...