Nick 🏳️🌈’s review published on Letterboxd:
I had to watch this movie for my Film History class, because despite it being supremely racist and ugly, it's regarded as being important to the development of film.
The first half of this movie is a pretty by-the-books epic war drama, which is surprising. It's pretty conventional and not very iffy besides some "normal" 1915 weirdness. They kind of lionize the Confederates and their cause, but the movie also portrays the Union and Abraham Lincoln in a positive way, which is interesting. Though it's just in the background, they also portray slaves as being pretty happy with their position and faithful to the masters. That sounds bad, but it's nowhere near as bad as what we see in the second half of this movie.
If this movie had consisted of the first half, it wouldn't have been super controversial, I imagine. The second half is when the movie gets really objectionable. It's just racist propaganda with no pretense of being anything other than that. The black characters are portrayed as unintelligent and lazy and evil, and the KKK are the heroes in this movie.
There's a scene where the main heroine's father says that "the blacks shall be raised to full equality with the whites," and that's supposed to be like a villainous moment I guess? (Don't worry, the father later gets a redemption arc when he turns against the black people).
Another thing that sucks about this movie is it's considered well-made and modern for its time, plus hugely influential. The technical stuff holds up pretty well. And the movie's not boring by any means. The action scenes are exciting and unprecedented for their time. But to be honest because of the subject matter, I probably wouldn't have had the patience to watch any of this without my professor's commentary, which was quite funny and informative.
It's interesting how complex and innovative the narrative in this movie is - for it's time. The movie is hours long, and has character arcs, plot twists, a huge ensemble cast, set-up, and foreshadowing, and lots of narrative depth. The movies that came before this were short and simple. Watching it now, the story and plot structure doesn’t feel very different from stuff we see in a lot of movies today. You can see how this movie was engaging for audiences and innovative for the industry.
Really though it's sad that such an important and influential movie had to be something like this. It could've just been normal 1915 "outdated racist" and even that would've been better. But nah it has to be like blatantly racist, revisionist propaganda. Something so bad that it was hugely controversial even in its own time. Usually it's easy to write off offensive movies like thing because they're bad or forgetful, but people just don't wanna forget about this one because it's so crucial to filmmaking.
In my view, just because a movie is innovative or groundbreaking doesn't mean it is flawless or anything like that. In many respects this movie is well-made on a technical level, but it's definitely no masterpiece. Even the worst movies can be influential.
And the innovation here definitely does not excuse the racism. Some would say you should just watch the film and judge it on its technical feats, but the point of this movie is to tell a story, and you have to take that into account. It's impossible for me to give this movie anything higher than half a star because of its subject matter.