A raw and uncomfortable anniversary in film history passed on March 3: One hundred years ago, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” made its national debut.
And while I understand the impulse to treat the highly fictionalized history of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan as a distasteful relic of an earlier time, a racist narrative that Hollywood ought to have surpassed long ago, I also think everyone ought to watch it.
You can’t quite understand the full power of Griffith’s bigotry unless you acknowledge the scale of his talent on display in “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based on the novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan” by Thomas Dixon Jr. of Shelby.
It doesn’t excuse Griffith in the slightest to talk about how he created a group of tremendously memorable white characters but failed to extend that same sensitivity and sense of perception to black ones, or to look at how he staged battle sequences that hold up 100 years later but couldn’t imagine that everyday African-American life consisted of more than bowing, scraping and vigorous dancing.
“The Birth of a Nation” continues to compel and trouble us precisely because it demonstrates just how much racism can cloud the vision of even a hugely observant director who was capable of eliciting superbly sensitive performances from his cast.
Technique vs. ideas
When people talk about why “The Birth of a Nation” has maintained its place in the canon, they usually cite revolutionary techniques. That’s a convenient frame, because it lets observers separate Griffith’s technical skills from his ideas. It’s true the final battle sequence still stands out as tense and unnerving.
But for me, the full extent of Griffith’s craft and limitations is most obvious in the performances he drew out of his actors. We see future Klan founder Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) grow from a feckless young man, eager to go to war despite the concern in his parents’ goodbyes, to a veteran who pauses at the threshold of their house on his homecoming, unsure of what he’ll find inside or how his ragged appearance will be received.
Josephine Crowell is exceptionally good as Ben’s mother, Mrs. Cameron. Griffith undercuts the jauntiness of “Dixie,” which plays as Ben rides off to war, with images of Mrs. Cameron’s anxious face. Later, when Ben is threatened with execution by the Union, Mrs. Cameron begs President Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) to pardon him. Her reaction when he agrees is one of the most human things I’ve ever seen on film: First, she is stunned into incomprehension at her success, then overjoyed to the point of moving to embrace the president, only to be restrained by Elsie (Lillian Gish), who will become her daughter-in-law.
And Griffith doesn’t only develop his major characters. He has a particular way of making a historical tableau come to life.
When Gen. Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) surrenders at Appomattox, Griffith captures him holding on to as much of his dignity as he can, even if the corners of Lee’s mouth betray his dismay.
Given these scenes, Griffith’s inability to put a convincing black character on screen is jarring. Mary Alden, the white actress who plays the biracial housekeeper to a Radical Republican senator, is made up so that her eyes bug and her mouth looks as though it’s in a perpetual grimace. Not content to show us that biracial Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (George Siegmann, in blackface) is bad at his job and a tool of Radical Republican policies, Griffith actually shows him abusing a dog. These are not the choices of a filmmaker who knows how to use sophisticated visual grammar.
When Dr. Cameron is marched before his former slaves in chains at the behest of the villainous Lynch, Griffith misses an opportunity to make the most of an encounter between the old man and a younger woman, played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan.
Manipulating free speech
As movie historian Donald Bogle explains in “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood,” the part was initially bigger.
Sul-Te-Wan’s newly wealthy character was snubbed by Mrs. Cameron and spit in the white woman’s face; the scene was cut. Without either that backstory or scenes from before the war that might have given richer and more honest context to the relationship of Sul-Te-Wan’s character with her former owners, the sequence with Dr. Cameron in chains loses the specific charge that might have come from a woman confronting the man who once owned her.
“The Birth of a Nation” begins with “A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE” presented on a title card. “We do not fear censorship,” wrote Griffith, “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 – the art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”
Griffith did that in “The Birth of a Nation,” if not in ways he intended. But it’s only by watching the movie that we can really see and understand Griffith’s place in the history he sketches at the start of the film.
In tracing America’s racial history, he shows us hypocritical Puritan preachers lording over shackled slaves and moralistic white abolitionists grandstanding, using stolid black men as props. Griffith, with his grinning, jigging, degenerate facsimiles of African-Americans, completes the triptych even more surely than do his thinly sketched Radical Republicans.