Micah Henning

On the Film: The Birth of a Nation

Recently, Netflix added "The Birth of a Nation," a 1915 silent film about the Civil War and the dramatized reconstruction thereafter. The film is known for many innovative film techniques that undoubtedly inspired many producers for years to come.

However, that is about all the good I have to say regarding this film, for it is obscenely racist. Any black character not involved in a crowd or backdrop is represented by a white person in blackface, and the film sympathizes with the creation of the Ku Klux Klan as being necessary to restore order after freedmen apparently ran amok, raping and pillaging. As if any sympathy were owed to the Southern whites of the era, even if it were true that freedmen did pass a law requiring whites to salute them in the streets! I'm ashamed of this film and embarrassed that it was produced by my country.

Following the initial release, D. W. Griffith added the following "disclaimer," as it were, to the beginning:

A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture

We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue--the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word--that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

How unforgivable! The Birth of a Nation has been attributed to starting the second founding of the KKK! The effect the movie has had on American society is completely counter to Griffith's plea; if he sincerely did intend to "illuminate the bright side of virtue"--which assuredly he must not have, as I discerned from the interviews included in the film--he failed shamefully, having understood nothing about prejudice or injustice.

If you'd like to discover why the American Film Institute declared this film as one of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time (at least in their first list) watch the first half of the film. You'll be amused for parts, and discover interesting film techniques as well. But save your time and sanity and skip the second part--you won't miss a thing.