The Birth of a Nation is the worst film ever made.
Maybe this is controversial. The cover to the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, mimicking original promotional materials, brazenly declares the “8th wonder of the world”, alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In a contemporary review in Variety, Mark Vance described “a great epoch in picture making”. D.W. Griffith held enormous power in early cinema, producing 1-2 films per week, accumulating 400 one-reelers for Biograph. Before the studio system, cinema was driven by independents. In the footsteps of Edison and Porter, Griffith’s name is inescapable, his light bulb logo appearing on every intertitle. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen (1905), a version had been in development in Kinemacolour, but Griffith’s film represented a paradigm shift, helping to establish the United States as a major production centre, developed under the Aitkens on a $40,000 budget and 6 weeks of rehearsal. The Birth of a Nation distinguished itself from nickelodeons as a 12-reel film screened in theatres and opera houses, its screening in Los Angeles’ Clune’s Auditorium on February 8th held under heavy police guard. The film became a perennial success: in his essay Do Movies Have Rights?, published in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louis Menand notes the film reached an audience of 100 million people between 1915 and 1926 (2006:200).
But The Birth of a Nation’s release was tumultuous, just as The Clansmen’s play sparked riots in Atlanta and was banned in Philadelphia and Boston. As Dorian Lynskey documents, censors acknowledged the film’s racist content, situated in a debate alongside the “moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice” in cinema. As Brian Willan notes in his essay ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931 in Journal of Southern African Studies 39(3), Birth was released across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, but suppressed in France and South Africa (2013:624). As Menand writes, censorship was at the behest of authorities, banned in Minneapolis, Ohio, Newark, St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis but largely “overturned in court” (2006:184).
Although multiple individuals opposed, opposition was hardly unified; Griffith’s response to a critical editorial in the New York Globe emphasised the intelligence of “theater-goers” over the “organized attacks of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics”. The NAACP, founded in 1909, had a membership of 5000 and a white-dominated leadership; but, as Stephen Weinberger writes in his essay The Birth of a Nation and the Making of the NAACP in Journal of American Studies 45(1), the film “helped transform the association in ways no one could have imagined”, shifting to national issues as the film “moved from major population centers to smaller ones” (2011:92). As Weinberger highlights, opposition continued into the Civil Rights Movement, disrupting 50th anniversary screenings (2011:77).
Released upon the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War, The Birth of a Nation followed a wave of one-reelers that, as David Shepard comments in The Making of the Birth of a Nation (1993), focused upon the suffering of war. As America’s most recent national war, the Civil War was a part of national mythmaking. The son of a confederate officer, Griffith touched upon his own history. Before the historical epics and blockbusters of later decades, The Birth of a Nation embraces extravagance, telling a long and complex period of history over several years. Although focusing upon the lives of the Camerons and Stonemans, excursions are long: purple-tinted sequences follow Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers; as officials leave, he places his hands on his head, and prays, moving forward to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre during a production of Our American Cousin. Griffith positions the assassination through Elsie and Phil Stoneman, watching towards the stage through binoculars; Booth appears with his gun with the stillness of a photograph, as though a portrait from the time.
Griffith offers dedication to detail, drawing upon lithographs and photographs. Griffith aggressively references intertitles with footnotes, detailing key dates. Griffith acknowledges each set as “historical facsimile”, drawing the Wilmer McLean home from Campaigning with Grant (1897) and the executive office and theatre from Lincoln, a History (1890). Griffith excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), a college companion of Dixon’s often cited as declaring the film as “writing history with lightning”, though Lynskey highlights Wilson denying approving an “unfortunate production”. Joseph Carl Breil’s score utilises music familiar to the Civil War. As Gordon Thomas writes, Griffith wanted historical films to “operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation”, whilst remaining entertainment.
In his exploration of the Piedmont-based Camerons, Griffith appeals to nostalgia for a life that, per the intertitles, “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more”, elder sister Margaret “trained in the manners of the old school”, creating a green tinted image of Victorian extravagance in home and costume. As Thomas writes, Griffith taps into the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, imagining a “pastoral paradise eradicated by the war”. A kindly master pets numerous cats and dogs; Griffith tries to endear with suitors and romance, creating scale in his interfamily romance. Looking at Elsie’s life in Washington, Griffith moves inside the House of Representatives, creating political intrigue prefiguring decades of political thrillers as Austin Stoneman pushes abolition. Griffith injects comedy: Austin is constantly in need of adjusting his wig.
The Birth of a Nation might be best known for its representation of the KKK, but its racist images penetrate more deeply. Griffith traces slavery’s history: in the opening, we observe a young boy surrounded by leering traders, Griffith’s intertitle stating the “bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We move into the courthouse of abolitionists; the slave peers out, desperate, helpless. On the cotton fields, we focus upon white men as Ben admires an image of Elsie, black men back of the frame, barely seen, never acknowledging the human trauma, suffering and dehumanisation explored in films like 12 Years a Slave (2013). The products of their labour become Southern ermine, worn without acknowledging their source. In their 2-hour interval for dinner, slaves are celebrating, dancing and clapping in unending joy.
Griffith’s Reconstruction is rooted in deep racism: offered enfranchisement, a freedman votes twice, peering to the audience as white officials are oblivious, when voter ID laws continue to disenfranchise black voters; intertitles state “the ignorant” are misusing the “charity of a generous North”. In the South Carolina legislature, Griffith pushes the ludicrous: black officials rest their feet without shoes, swig from the bottle, eat fried chicken; the speaker rules all members must wear shoes, an image Kevin Brownlow notes in his essay We Can Never Censor the Past is drawn from a political cartoon; motions suggest intermarriage and white salutes. As Thomas notes, Birth follows the ideology of “the Dunning school”, following the concept of “negro incapacity” of blacks as “childlike beings”. In one of the most ubiquitous images, Flora Cameron is pursued by the animalism of Gus, played in blackface, jumping to her death from a cliff at threat of marriage. Gus becomes another black victim lynched by the KKK, rallying a mob. In The Clansmen, Dixon Jr. is more explicit, depicting a mother and daughter who commit suicide after being raped by a gang of blacks. In drunken fervour, Silas Lynch speaks of revolution, building a Black Empire on the streets, coercing Elsie into marriage. Black characters become caricatures, “black trash” in accented intertitles. Griffith defended his representation of “faithful Negroes who stayed with their former masters and were ready to give up their lives to protect their white friends”, alluding to characters like blackface servant Mammy.
In the intertitles to the 1921 reissue, Griffith rebuffs calls for censorship, arguing for the “liberty” granted to “the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Intolerance (1916) is but an affirmation: as William M. Drew writes in the Masters of Cinema booklet, Griffith was dramatizing “consequences of attempts by powerful forces to control human thought and behavior”, emphasising his right to hold his beliefs. In The Birth of a Nation, the KKK is normalised, traced prior to their dissolution as a terrorist organisation in 1871 and their actions during the Civil Rights Movement and today. The confederate flag persists in the banal, used to wipe a woman’s face. White women become complicit in their persistence, stitching together KKK costumes. Griffith sets their arrival to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (1870): purple-tinted silhouettes march across the hills; on horseback, we feel their speed as they carry the cross, intercut against Lynch’s intimations of intermarriage. The Birth of the Nation isn’t state-produced in the same way as Triumph of the Will (1936) or October (1928), but it is propaganda, understanding the power of images in crafting political narrative. Just as the aesthetics of propaganda have become lauded for contributions to cinematic language, so too have those innovated by Griffith.
White supremacy cannot be divorced from The Birth of a Nation. In an intertitle, the KKK describe themselves as an “unconquered race” of “old Scotland’s hills”; another intertitle states their “Aryan birthright”; a flag declares how the confederacy is just, for “VICTORY OR DEATH”. Vance’s review seems to make Griffith’s intended audience clear, appraising how his “picture would please all white classes.” The Birth of a Nation only strengthens a toxic ideology, even within miscegenation laws that refused to allow white women to play against black actors on film or on stage, anti-immigration rhetoric and a climate supporting eugenics as a viable solution within philosophical and scientific though.
With The Clansmen and his Reconstruction Trilogy (1902-07), Dixon Jr. intended to “teach the north” about “the awful suffering of the white man”, anointed by “Almighty God” to reign “supreme”. Lynskey highlights a quote included in an NAACP pamphlet where Dixon Jr. describes his intention to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people” and “prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood”, seeking “all Negroes removed from the United States.” In scenes present in the premiere under the title The Clansmen, excised from the finished cut, Menand describes scenes of “white women being abducted by black rapists”, a declaration that Lincoln “did not believe in racial equality” and a closing scene described as “Lincoln’s solution”, depicting the deportation of blacks to Africa (2006:185).
Although Brownlow notes “dispute about whether the film led to the revival of the Ku Klu[x] Klan or whether that was a result of the Great War”, Lynskey comments that the resurrected Klan based its logo “on a still from the movie”, describing its first public appearance at the Atlanta premiere, publicists using KKK emblazoned hats and aprons to promote the film; the KKK utilised the film for recruitment. Though the Klan initially had a few thousand members, the organisation grew to 100,000 by 1921 and 2-5 million by 1925, though dropping off by the end of the decade. As Joshua Rothman describes, the Klan became “superficially innocuous” with a sense of “patriotic respectability” and fraternity, appealing to middle classes with “festivities, pageants, and social gatherings”, alongside “baseball teams and beautiful-baby contests”, “charity drives”, “Christmas parties for orphans” and “wedding ceremonies, christenings and funerals”.
America was founded on manifest destiny. Though the passage of time from The Birth of a Nation might call for a sense of historical detachment, white supremacy remains potent, with the white supremacy rally at Charlottesville occurring without police intervention, creating a gathering place for neo-Nazis and the KKK. As Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies (2017), online culture of sites like 4Chan encourage a transgressive, nihilistic culture embedded within the alt-right and anti-Semitism. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his article The First White President, Trump is a white supremacist with no “black facsimile”, supporting a “white coalition” beyond the white working class, as the country refuses to accept its “bloody heirloom” of racism that remains “at the heart of this country’s political life.”
Although Dixon Jr.’s writing contained intimations of racial war, The Birth of a Nation is profoundly anti-war. Though early scenes show the happiness of marching off to war, with the pageantry of cheers and drums (later contrasted by the KKK’s same march upon horseback), Griffith is depicting a march towards death. We follow Ben into the battlefields, receiving a letter from his big sister two and a half years after he departed. Through the perspective of a family, Griffith allows us to view the war’s effects over time. We follow the Cameron brothers, Wade and Duke, and Tod Stoneman, joining the regiment, entering battles like the Battle of Bull Run. Griffith depicts the sense of sheer panic at the arrival of guerrilla raids and black regiments, white residents running inside for shelter. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer pans the film’s solitary camera across the battlefield, surveying destruction and smoke, witnessing its scale from overhead. Griffith holds the camera upon bodies of dead soldiers, refusing to look away; as Thomas parallels, reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the battle of Petersburg. As Brownlow notes, production began a month before the outbreak of World War I, on 4th July 1914, with Griffith believing its “pacifist message […] might even stop the war”, the intertitle preceding the 1921 release announcing its intent to convey the “ravages” and “abhorrence” of war. Willan notes opposition from British censors to some sequences of war.
Moving into a hospital, Griffith allows us to witness war’s effects. As Richard Brody writes, Griffith offers “humanly profound moments” in “universal circumstances”, praising his “breathtaking shot” of a “huddling mother and children” and the “harrowing and exalted grandeur” of a “classical moment of tragedy.” The conclusion, much like Intolerance’s ending upon a spiritual plane, follows romance towards a double honeymoon, taking a train carriage to sunset by the beach; couples dream of a “golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.” As characters merge, a Messianic image of Jesus appears avowing peace, a scene Vance speculates will “in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah.”
The Birth of a Nation has persisted in part for its legacy upon the cinematic medium. But silent cinema has a vast canon of innovators beyond Griffith, acting equally and far more deeply into radicalism, each effort growing what cinema can do. The Birth of a Nation uses an impressive array of effects, reconfiguring the temporality of editing by intercutting between scenes. Griffith’s use of the circular frame allows for a kinetic cinema, displaying different or multiple parts of the frame to be revealed at a certain time, focusing in upon the romantic meeting by the pond in “Love Valley”, parts of the battlefield or moving out from the gallery during Lincoln’s assassination. In certain scenes, the colour tinting pierces the eye alongside Griffith’s use of silhouettes, depicting the power of bonfire celebrations. Through textual documents, Griffith relays narrative through letters and newspaper headlines, immersing the viewer within a multifaceted world. Griffith’s commitment to staging is shown through gesture and small movements; dancing is given a sense of motion, moving in the dancehall with the array of people.
But we should reckon with The Birth of a Nation’s legacy. The Birth of a Nation persisted with Dixon Jr.’s lost The Fall of a Nation (1916) released the following year; by 1930, it had been issued in sound, a prologue featuring Griffith and Lincoln. Menand points to the Aitkens’ efforts to produce a remake, trying to lure a “broken and broke” Griffith and Dixon in the 1930s and another in 1954, unable to secure financing (2006:200). Brody speculates why there was “no movie documentary in which former slaves bore witness to their experience” a la Shoah (1985), or “a full and classic drama about the agonies of slaves in the prewar South, and the full measure of horrific exactions by the Klan and the decades of Jim Crow.” But Hollywood’s at counter responses largely floundered, with Lynskey highlighting a screenplay that never materialised as a finished film between the NAACP and Universal, Lincoln’s Dream; The Birth of a Race (1918), set back by white financiers, devolved from a 3 hour epic response to a film about World War I, with only directors like Oscar Michaeux filling the void. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) sought to reclaim the title for African-American empowerment and struggle, only to be set back by emerging testimony of sexual assault.
Before watching The Birth of a Nation, my least favourite film had been Catwoman (2004), itself about an empowered black female. Of course, Catwoman has an impact upon our own world, representative of the heroes we celebrate and allow budgets for. But Catwoman’s innumerable flaws of plot, character and style have no immediate bearing compared to the persistence of ideologies of white supremacy and the subhumanization of racial minorities. Aesthetic form cannot be detached from content; the two together form a message. The Birth of a Nation is irredeemable, unable to be celebrated. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t deserve exhilaration: it deserves great sadness.