Welcome to Land of The Nerds, where I, Douglas Laman, use my love of cinema to explore, review and talk about every genre of film imaginable!
Sunday, February 2, 2020
The Birth of a Nation Is Poorly Put-Together Cinema With An Evil Heart
There's really no other way to begin a review about D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. This is, in the words of Roger Ebert, "...a great film that argues for evil" and its evil is so omnipresent that it's the only place where a discussion on the project can begin and end, especially when one remembers that the project was considered racist all the way back in its initial theatrical release in 1915. Considering how much it influenced the last 105 years of cinema, it's important to take The Birth of a Nation to task for its repugnant white supremacy, especially since pieces of rhetoric expressed via on-screen text in the intertitles is interchangeable with the rhetoric you'd hear Tucker Carlson espouse on an average Tuesday night.
What plot is The Birth of a Nation concerning itself with? Well, it's technically a dramatic retelling of "historical events" that transpired at the end of the Civil War and in the first few years of the Reconstruction era. Our primary points of focus in this movie include the Stoneman family (a northern family concerned with abolition) and especially the Cameron family (a Southern clan). The individual members of this family are rocked by the Civil War, particularly the sons of each family who are recruited to fight in the expansive conflict. At first, the film is mainly painting itself as a war drama more concerned with individual families worrying for their offpsring sent off to war than anything else.
But then the second part dealing with Reconstruction begins and this is where Birth of a Nation puts the already apparent racism into overdrive. The sight of freed slaves being treated as equals or having autonomy in society is shown to be as terrifying of a sight as Thanos collecting Infinity Stones in Avengers: Infinity War. All the while, intertitle screens express woe for the ultimate marginalized population in American history, White Southerners. Birth of a Nation is more divorced from reality than Phantasm and eventually that infatuation with a fantasy vision of white oppression leads to the Klu Klux Klan being seen as the only savior that can help restore order to the South overrun with dangerous people of color.
There's really nothing else going on in the script for The Birth of a Nation beyond hideous racist fantasies and a chilling woe-is-me pity party for racist white people. The various characters in each of the Cameron and Stoneman families are just around to espouse or advance racist views so the screenplay by D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods never bothers to give them individual personalities or perspectives. They're all just boring blank slates you can never get dramatically invested in. This makes a climax where all the assorted plotlines begin to converge in a race-against-time a snoozefest rather than engaging. How can one be on the edge of their seat when the characters in peril are so poorly-defined?
Worse still is the fact that The Birth of a Nation isn't a marvel on a filmmaking level. I've heard all my life the repeated mantra that "Yes, Birth of a Nation is racist but at least it's stunning on a visual level". However, it's pretty disposable visually. The visual elements in a famous chase scene between Flora Cameron (Mae March) and freed slave Gus (Walter Long) are a shocking step down from the camerawork and editing you'd find in similar chase sequences from other films (chiefly anything from a Charlie Chaplin title) released in the 1910s. It's a clumsily put-together sequence emblematic of the underwhelming camerawork and editing found throughout the production. To boot, it's worth mentioning how many filmmaking techniques The Birth of a Nation is credited with creating (like the close-up) were actually pioneered by earlier movies. A wealthy white man getting all the credit for innovations accomplished by other people?!? I am shocked!
The large-scale battle sequences come closest to impressing but the way Griffith just lets them drone on and on without any characters we can get invested in makes these recreations of Civil War battles a 1915 version of the realistic CGI in The Lion King. Specifically, both movies carry visual effects that are impressive for the first minute or two they're on-screen before you realize you're watching a tepid tech demo. That's when you begin to crave something more thematically substantive to chew on. You won't find anything like that in The Birth of a Nation. This is just three hours of racist misery, a descent into a hateful worldview you'll want to escape from a mere minute into its runtime. Only a 40-second segment of its runtime dedicated to a playful scuffle between a kitten and two puppies offers any escape from the suffocatingly cruel perspective of The Birth of a Nation.
Addendum: Having watched a lot of silent cinema, I found it so baffling that The Birth of a Nation is the only film I can think of with such arrogant intertitle cards. Each of the intertitle cards are accompanied by the words Griffith tucked away in both of the top corners while the initials D.W. are found at the bottom of the frame. D.W. Griffith really wanted to constantly take people out of the movie so he could remind them who directed this trash. This is like if A24 made sure to plaster the A24 logo on every other frame of The Lighthouse!
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