The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation ★★★½

How on earth am I supposed to write about this? Heck, how does anyone go about writing about The Birth of a Nation? Undeniably the film that comes with the most baggage in all of cinematic history, I'm struggling to fully comprehend the imagery and the thematic elements. I've never felt so conflicted on so many things in one viewing. All I know is that I've been putting off writing my thoughts on it for over half an hour and now is the time to focus in order to try and process all of the stuff flying around in my brain.

Note: It's probably very obvious, but I still want to put a content warning for racism here just in case.

I feel that I should start off with things that I can appreciate or respect about this film, though there are few things to write about in this regard. What surprised me was how… watchable it was? For a film that was well over three hours long, it sure did not feel like I was sat on my seat for that amount of time. Nothing ever dragged and it was all perfectly paced, which is kind of scary to ponder on. The first half is really interesting to talk about in this aspect. The two main families – the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South – are set up in a very articulate manner. We see both families weave in and out of other scenarios that are set up in a very intelligent way. The moments that lend themselves to building and fleshing out characters feel so smooth that you can't help but become invested in the journeys that they are about to go on for the remainder of the runtime. Griffith's usage of cross cutting here is quite astonishing in a lot of regards. It overwhelms the audience to the point that you're left with this very guttural feeling. I hated what I was watching and how this has influenced racial dynamics and white supremacy in the States. But I was still stunned by the general experience. The fact that the climax is sustained and slowly increased over the last half hour is crazy and intimidating because this is where a lot of the iconic moments come from in The Birth of a Nation. This double whammy of recognising all of the infamous shots such as the Clansmen riding to 'save the day' and getting caught up in the whole whirlwind of emotions on display made this quite the overload of information and thoughts. No wonder this absolutely electrified audiences when it was released. It's thrilling with the way that tension immaculately builds into these triumphant crescendos. An accurate comparison would be to say this was like listening to a symphony by a romantic composer such as Brahms or Tchaikovsky, because the climaxes in the film feel like those moments where the brass section would enter with the main theme/ leitmotif and the only response that your body can muster is goosebumps and shivers, for better or for worse.

The way that Griffith used blocking throughout is very impressive. There's always a collection of characters responding in slightly different ways that at some points you don't really know who or what to focus on. Look at the scene in the dancing hall before the soldiers have to go off to fight in the Civil War as one example. The camera pulls back to reveal the full extent of this goodbye, how it impacts so many people beyond the characters that the film follows. Everyone is moving in the same way that it takes on a strange emotional sensation. But then again, I had all sorts of emotions and thoughts going on whilst I sat through this ordeal. With the intense staging of the battles and other scenarios with multiple characters, there also comes a few standout points where Griffith swings the other way and focuses on a handful of people to drive the plot forward. The notorious scene with Gus and Flora serves as an effective use of this other kind of staging. With only the two taking up the majority of the scene, it becomes an unsettling game of cat and mouse. But then, Ben is introduced into the scene by the point that you realise it's already inevitable what is to come. This contrast from the more complex scenes of conflict makes the emotional beats poignant and they end up becoming some of the more memorable scenes because of this reason.

Whilst I was very conscious of the film's Lost Cause pseudo-narrative, I was impressed and slightly enjoyed the first half. There are plenty of obnoxious stereotypes that the film brings to your attention but as a narrative it was much easier to sit through than the second half that follows. The reconstructions of the Civil War was breathtaking in their execution, choosing to shoot a lot of scenes from far away to immerse you in the landscape of the conflict instead of focusing solely on the battles. These shots felt as if somebody had ran onto the battlefield and captured whatever they could with their camera and this borderline authenticity managed to wow me unlike a lot of other moments in this film. Going back to the editing for a bit, the buildup to the Little Colonel leading the charge at the Siege of Petersburg raised hairs all over my body. This is one of two scenes, the other being the assassination of Lincoln, that really had me marvelling at the film's chilling execution as a whole.

Without a doubt, the greatest scene has to be in Ford's Theatre. Going into this, you already know what is in store as soon as the date is mentioned. The whole first half has been building up to the death of Abraham Lincoln. We've seen him plenty of times before, so the audience has already developed some sort of connection to him in the story. Seeing the Stonemans entering the theatre develops this sense of dramatic irony that slowly bubbles away until the climax of Lincoln's death. We know how everything plays out, yet through Griffith's stringing together of individual moments – the Stonemans, the guard and all the other pieces – you're left absolutely speechless. It's a scene that still holds up today over a century later which is no small feat.

I'm done talking about the things that I could see as slight positives, but they do not outweigh the parts of this film that has unfortunately cemented its legacy in cinematic history. I don't see myself adding anything new to the conversation (I mean, what else is there to be said?) but I really need to get this stuff off my chest so I can sleep at a decent time tonight.

Racial depictions really made my stomach churn in this, all the way through. It reeks of wealthy white panic towards the notion of Black autonomy. Dixon and Griffith knew what they were doing with their portrayals of the African-American people. The watermelon eating, the over the top body language and general insidious attitude from the creative forces behind the film is enough reason for all of the hatred thrown its way. I was surprised to actually see that some African Americans had been casted, but only as extras in a few scenes that serve to demonise them further. White actors in blackface still managed to get the spotlight as more important figures in the narrative. Griffith had some sort of bollocks excuse for this choice that doesn't hold up with the portrayal of African Americans in the film. You can't even defend it for being a 'product of the times'. Sure, white America generally loved the film, but we mustn't forget the large amount of protesting that surrounded the film's release. Just because the majority didn't seem to take much issue with it, does not mean that there were groups who tried their hardest to censor this atrocious Lost Cause fantasy. I can't find the quotes now, but someone said that this film pushed the progress towards equality between races back by a long period of time. There were people who were vocal at the time of release and they were very aware of the impact of The Birth of a Nation and most people were never bothered by that.

The amount of times I said something along the lines of 'Oh God', 'Oh Fuck', 'Really?' or something to that affect in the second half is a strong enough indicator at how horrible the presentation of the KKK is. Griffith decides to pass off a KKK trial of a black man as nothing more than a small plot point. The black man is lynched for crying out loud and all that we see is his body discarded like a rag doll to be used as a threat to other black people. The film chooses to paint this in a positive light of course. After all, any decision made by the African Americans is deemed as being too 'radical' or 'animalistic' or an attempt to debase the white race. I find it ironic that apparently in early screenings the Ride of the Valkyries played during the march of the KKK towards the end of the film, considering that Wagner was an anti-semite (it's not the same, but the strong bigotry from both parties seems like a strange match). Until today, I never thought that I'd see a film that would so casually show voter suppression like this. The KKK do what they were known for, threatening the lives of ethnic minorities, yet it is once again portrayed as heroic and the thing that irritates me the most is how this still goes on to this day. The right will always denounce it, unless they think it will effect them, and with the way it's put into the film it feels so nonchalant that it really shows how little has changed in some regards.

This review is messy and I spent a lot more time trying to write my thoughts out than I normally do. I probably didn't do a good job expressing my points, but there's so much bullshit to try and unpack in this that I genuinely didn't know where to start until I began typing. I watched this expecting it to be pretty awful and I was slightly surprised. Primarily because I expected there to be little artistic merit to this, but then it became obvious to me. As much as I hate to say it, there is some mastery of the cinematic craft on display. It's these elements that work so well to create the intense feelings that you're left with at the end of it all.

A film that is probably beyond being rateable, but my choice is going to inevitably change a lot. The Birth of a Nation is unfortunately a very important film. At the same time, fuck this movie.

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