The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith was one of themost controversial silent films of the 20th century praised for itstechnological advancements for its time. Based on the 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon,Jr.
, The Clansman: An Historical Romanceof the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation reflected contemporaryhistorical views of the U.S. Civil War. Created by the first filmmaker toexploit the potential of film editing, D.W. Griffith is recognized for manyediting techniques that were unheard of at the time, including: simultaneousaction, close-ups, scenic long shot, traveling “panning shot,” fade-in-fade-out,tracking shots, still-shots, flashback, parallel editing and many more. Its improvementsin early cinema are commonly outdone by the racist depiction of blacks in thefilm, but many important characteristics of film making today can be linkedback to Griffith’s film.
TheBirth of a Nation was a twelve-reel propaganda film that told an epic taleof the American Civil War by centering on two families who befriend each otherbut are on opposite sides in the conflict. During Reconstruction, Stoneman,Leader of the House and the head of the northern family, pushes throughlegislation that gives rights to freed slaves, while the elder son of thesouthern family helps start the Ku Klux Klan in response to outrages committedin his town. D.W. Griffith designed shots ranging from epic views of thebattles to intimate details of the characters’ lives. In certain scenes,tracking shots were used by Griffith.
For example, when the Klan races to savethe southern family, trapped in a cabin by attacking blacks, and to free theheroine from the grip of the villainous mulatto leader, who threatens hervirtue. In a scene like this, Griffith would mount his camera on a car tocreate fast tracking shots before the galloping Klan members in the climaticrescue sequence. Another technique used in this scene is parallel editing.Parallel editing is one of the basic principles behind all chases scenes in The Birth of a Nation. Parallel editingis when two or more separate scenes are combined to give the impression thatthe separate actions are happening concurrently.
In one of the scenes in thefilm, the clansmen are seen galloping into town and out to the cabin. In thisscene, with the help of an appropriate score, parallel editing shows separateactions scenes coming together to give the viewer of the film the impressionthat the two scenes are happening at the same time.Another important technique usedthroughout the film was the angle in which scenes were filmed. For example, thebattle scene is filled with many different angles each with a specific purposeas to why it was filmed in that angle. A wide shot of a battlefield tells theaudience that the characters are taking part of a large battle before takingthe shots at a closer up angle and only watching a few people fight. It givesthe audience a scope of the setting in which the action is taking place.
Another scene in which angles are a major aspect is when the southern son’sreturn home. This scene is filmed at an oblique angle so that the doorwayconceals his mother and sister as they embrace him. Such understatementenhances the emotional power of the moment. Other scenes that incorporatedangles was when Gus attempted rape of Flora and when the KKK rescues Elsie fromLynch and of Ben’s sister Margaret.
The breathtaking shot that starts close toa huddling mother and children, high on a hillside, and then moves to theadvance of Sherman’s army, seen from the elevated family refuge, depicts theintimate ravages of war (Film History). The shot of a former slave-owner, undersiege by a posse of freedmen for his son’s membership of the KKK, holding hisgrown daughter by the hair and raising his pistol above her head, preparing tokill her if the blacks breach the door, represents a very tragic moment in thefilm that surpasses the main message of racism and prejudice that is portrayedin this film. In one scene, blacks dressed as if extras in a minstrel show, drinkwhiskey, sit barefoot and gouge on meat as they take their places in South Carolina’snew legislature. The screen then follows to read with the words, “The Helplesswhite minority”. D.W. Griffith uses these scenes, shot at these oblique andrather different than customary angles, as a way to engage the audience in whatis going on in the film.
Although close-up shots have beenused in earlier short films, Griffith uses close-up shots to focus on the moresubtle emotions of his actors and to get a closer look of their faces. He usesthe close-up shots to reveal intimate expressions and emotions felt by thecharacters. Griffith realized that by moving the camera closer to his subjectinto a close-up, more intimate details were revealed on the subject’s face,personalizing the character’s expression in a much more valuable way. Whencontrasted with close-ups, long shots had added value.
One of the mostcelebrated shots is the intimate view of a mother and her children weeping on ahillside. Without a cut, via the opening of an iris and pan, Griffith slowlyreveals what the family watches: General Sherman’s devastating march. Griffithsuccessfully ties the personal to the historical in one shot. He also uses themto direct a viewer’s attention to important parts of the story, for example,the picture of Elsie Stoneman or the letter between the Cameron’s andStoneman’s. TheBirth of a Nation varies in color as the movie progresses, thoughtraditionally being called a black-and-white film. This is because D.W.Griffith used color tinting for dramatic and psychological effects in sequence.
Early scenes in the south are filmed with a more sepia tone as life is peacefuland harmonic, but later scenes are a harsh black and white as black soldiersfill the streets and the clansmen come to break them up. It was alsointeresting to me that D.W. Griffith used night photography by incorporatingthe use of magnesium flares (Film History). He also used outdoor naturallandscapes as backgrounds unlike earlier films which were filmed in smallstudios and sets like the “Black Maria”. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation employs various filming techniques andediting styles that made the storyline flow seamlessly for audiences.Griffith’s goal was to represent reality as he understood it. “The very essenceof his realism is open frames, complex staging’s, and multiple planes ofaction, all of which suggest far more than Griffith’s descriptive title cards,and his stunted politics, would themselves allow” (The New Yorker).
He filmed aworld that was made to embody his point of view. To do this, he incorporatedmany techniques. Though The Birth of a Nation was an important step in the history offilmmaking, it was also made with an obvious racial bias. Roger Ebert, at firstreluctant to critique the film, says that “certainly Birth of a Nation is a film of great visual beauty and narrativepower, yet when it comes to his version of the Reconstruction era, he tells thestory of the liberation of the slaves and its aftermath through the eyes of aSoutherner who cannot view African Americans as possible partners in Americancivilization” (Ebert). The Birth of a Nationsparked protests, riots, and divisiveness since its release. Specifically, bythe NAACP which objected, to the film’s racist portrayal of African- Americansand its glamorizing of the Ku Klux Klan, but probably the most important aspectof the film’s legacy was how it prompted African-Americans to strive to createtheir own films in which they could tell their own stories(Virginia.
edu). Showingsof the film were picketed and boycotted from the start, due to itscontroversial themes. The themes in “Birth of a Nation” concentrate on race,class, gender, and region, the most influential and important theme being thatblacks are stupid, crazy men who only want one thing: white women. “It isinteresting to note that the scene-by-scene rhythm of the film almostcompulsively alternates the “courtship plots” with the others. One thing thatstruck out to me in this film was the controversial character and messagedriven plot that is portrayed. In the first part, love alternates with war. Inthe second part, love alternates with revenge against the black usurpers.
Theeffect is to rivet our interest in a favorable romantic outcome while treatingthe political parts of the plot, as mere trifling obstacles to the ultimateconsummation between Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman” (virginia.edu). Conversely, whites are portrayed as the”helpless white minority”. Griffith exaggerates true facts about confederatesoldiers not being able to participate in the government and courts of thesouth after the civil war. By doing this it seems as if the south is beingtaken over by savage blacks who are causing anarchy.
The message that blackscause anarchy and only want white women is played up even more throughout thefilm. The black soldiers are seen running through the streets terrorizing womenand children and looting anything they can get their hands on. Blacks are alsoseen beating other blacks who don’t vote with the carpetbaggers. The Birth of a Nation is rooted in onebelief, that white people inherently deserve power over Black people. The story’sprimary intent surrounded the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the racisminvolved. It criticizes the North for exploiting its power over the South, yetis also hypocritical in the sense that it supports the rampant abuse of powerby white Southerners. The film was used as propaganda to revive the Klan. Thefilm presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War, glorifyingthe Ku Klux Klan and denigrating blacks.
Birthof a Nation is structured as a series of oppositions, north verses south, unionverses confederacy, peace verses war and of course black verses white. Thebirth of a nation is clearly a racist film. This is demonstrated by theportrayal of African Americans as violent, drunk, animal like beings, whosecriminal behavior make a necessary presence of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film,after the civil war has given blacks the right to vote, African- Americans areseen as lazy black characters taking over the nation’s capital by drinking,smoking and subsequently taking over the entire government. In one scene, aninnocent white woman is accosted by a lustful black soldier. Even though shetries to resist his advances, the soldier insists on attempting to rape her.
The scene then climaxes as the women is seen running and jumping off a cliffbecause she rather kill herself than be forced to have sex with a black man. ForGriffith, the original sin of America was not slavery as much as it was themixing of the races. Much of the content inThe Birth of a Nation consisted of white people being saved by evil blackpeople. The two great villains of the film are described as mulattos, who arepeople who wish to mix black blood with white. The central conflict is builtaround the Civil War. A conflict not only about slavery but about the futureethnic makeup of the country. Griffith was the most famousdirector of this era.
Today, many people overlook the impressive filmmakingtechniques of the time and see the film as a glorification of Southern whitesupremacy, but the fact remains that Griffith’s work in film laid some of thebasic groundwork that is still seen in narrative film today. The film is a veryracial presentation of how the African Americans were portrayed by whites. Throughoutits three hours of film, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy,morally degenerate, and dangerous human beings. Yet the fact remains that D.
W.Griffith is welly deserving of the credits he is given for innovating most ofthe major film techniques- something he encouraged in publicizing himself.