Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I’ve written a few words over the years about D.W. Griffith and his two seminal masterpieces The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  In fact nearly everyone whose written anything about cinema has written a few words about these two landmarks of American film.  A couple of weeks ago I watched both films again and it got my mind aflutter.  Due to my tendency to write too much, here’s the first part of that review, on The Birth of a Nation.

It is hard for me to divorce these films from their historical era.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, because it is important to view things in the context of history.  We shouldn’t judge Robocop’s ED-209 with it's noticeable stop motion animation by today’s CGI-fests.  It’s important to know the limitations of the era and respect the often ingenious solutions filmmakers got around certain practical problems.  This helps explain some of the awe I have watching the battle scenes in Birth of a Nation, and particularly the Babylonian sequence in Intolerance.  I still wager Intolerance is impressive today, even knowing that modern special effects were over half a century away.

Looking at these films as a product of their time brings a few problems however.  The first is that we aren’t measuring the films by any universal criteria.  We give these films a pass on some of the acting, writing, and production values based on when it was made as opposed to ranking it alongside any contemporary work.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and these two films for better or worse helped define nearly all of Hollywood for the past century.  The other more practical problem is that modern audiences have no idea what life in 1915-1916 was like.  We’ve read history books, seen old movies, but do any of us really know the cultural zeitgeist of a century ago?  This leads to many modern audiences, myself included, projecting what they felt was normal or contemporary for the period.

So naturally we’re facing a certain dilemma, do we simply laugh at the over dramatic acting, and dismiss this as some historical relic good for a chuckle; or do we measure the films based on what was happening at the time and measure them against their peers?  Film is a medium that has continually evolved as new technology has developed.  It’s easy to discuss the artistic merits of paintings that are separated by a century or more, because paint + canvas = art hasn’t really changed that much.  Sure different styles and movements have come and gone in painting, but the tools have remained the same.  Music to a lesser extent can fall under the same category.  Classical music in particular can be compared across any era, because the instruments and basic music theory hasn’t changed much since the baroque period. 

Literature offers perhaps the closest parallel to cinema.  The structure of the novel is still very much the same as it’s always been, but so many other things have changed.  So many classic novels have entire plots based on obsolete or downright silly dated axioms.  This doesn’t stop these books from being great, but it certainly makes them dated and we have to trust in the writer to transport us to that world.  This is why books like Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie remain classics despite being nearly completely implausible in a contemporary setting.

I realize I’ve gotten ludicrously off base and I know what you want to talk about, racism.  It’s the elephant in the room with Birth of a Nation, the one thing that the film has been associated with throughout the last century.  This aspect makes that historical perspective tough to figure.  This was made in 1915, nearly 50 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, so it’s easy to just shrug your shoulder and say people were just a hell of a lot more racist back then.  That doesn’t exactly let Mr. Griffith off the hook to just point and say everyone was a little racist back then.  So allow me to try and wrap my brain around the most troubling aspect of either of these films.

Now the film essentially breaks itself into two parts.  There’s the war, and the Reconstruction.  These can be separated by Lincoln’s assassination.  Griffith makes a strong point in this film to point out how much he loves Lincoln, and believes he could have prevented all the degradation and exploitation of the Reconstruction.  So it isn’t entirely accurate to label him a racist right off the bat.  Not all of the blacks in this film are portrayed as buffoons.  A few comically offensive ones certainly overshadow the more humane examples.  These things didn’t go unnoticed at the time, as many protests were centered around the film and the NAACP urged a boycott and outright banning of the film.

What’s interesting to note narratively is that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) who is shown to be the founder of the KKK, was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln.  It is meant to show the compassion and forgiveness on Lincoln’s part to the rebel Confederates, but it also unfortunately implies that had it not been for that presidential pardon the Klan might not have been formed.  I don’t think Griffith or original author Thomas Dixon Jr. were implying that Lincoln was in some way responsible for the group, but it is an interesting by-product.

I'm fascinated to know end with the amount of information we are given.  The Civil War itself is remarkably simplified.  Trying to condense the bloodiest conflict in American history into a one hour subplot will naturally involve leaving out a few details.  However the film moves along in a way that respects the audience's intelligence.  We’re supposed to know certain things, and Griffith assumes we have some basic understanding of the principles involved.  That’s why the Northern Stoneman’s and Southern Cameron’s are meant to represent two sides of the same coin.  They’re united as Americans but divided by geography.  It’s Griffith’s and Dixon’s belief that we are all one nation, hence the title of the film, and that essentially wealthy white people are one and the same everywhere.

That feeling when you can't look a white man in the blackface
Where Dixon in particular shows his Confederate pride is in his depiction of Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based loosely on Thaddeus Stevens.  Stoneman isn’t necessarily wrong in his beliefs but certainly in his execution.  He is a staunch abolitionist and that’s something that isn’t exactly being contested here, but his plan for the Reconstruction is to punish the South, contrary to Lincoln’s plan.  As a patriarch in the beginning of the film during their visit to the Cameron’s in South Carolina, he is depicted as a pretty level headed leader.  His family is well brought up, and he is extremely progressive employing a “mulatto” named Silas Lynch (played by the very white George Siegmann).  Afterwards you can almost feel the Yankee loathing in Dixon, who made Stoneman a figurehead for every carpetbagger that came to exploit the South, and in particular the newly enfranchised freed slaves.

Again where this film gets troublesome is that the tactics used to give blacks the vote and suppress the former slave owning whites from elections are exactly what happened for the next century on the other side.  In fact when “order” is restored near the end of the film, all the freed slaves go back to being terrified of white men and want nothing to do with voting and holding office.  The scene of the black representatives is one that constantly gets cited among the films greatest sins.  You can view it as a sort of a caricature, everything in silent films had to be somewhat exaggerated and blown out of proportion to translate on the screen, so the unruliness of these newly elected members does reflect that.  By today’s cinematic standards it’s hard to watch without cringing at a few moments.  Members are barefoot, taking shots of whiskey, and all other manner of unruliness.  Rather than showing the utter chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction, it comes across as showing newly freed slaves as uncivilized baboons that have no business in government or decent society.  The black legislature even has the audacity to legalize interracial marriages, which is of course depicted as an atrocity here.

Nothing offensive about that at all
Now rather than spend this entire time talking about racism I’d like to point out something about the acting style in the film.  It was common in many Griffith films, but you can certainly notice here that no characters ever make eye contact.  They always turn their heads towards the camera or away from each other, looking straight ahead as if they are projecting for an audience.  Now this was a play before a film, so it’s possible Griffith just went with that style, but it makes the performances feel unnatural, even if it’s not immediately perceivable.  Naturalistic acting wasn’t a particular style in silent film, but watch just how many people fail to make eye contact when speaking here, it’s staggering.

Behold eye contact in all it's glory
Now back to mixed race marriages because although it is the type of fundamental human right we have lately taken for granted, it’s depiction here is important to note.  Gus, the black soldier who was played by the really white Walter Long, spots Flora Cameron and over-zealously mentions his intention to marry her.  In a modern film this might be met with some confusion, earlier he is seen spotting her and somewhat leering at Flora, but alone in the woods it’s depicted as downright terrifying.  Flora becomes arguably the most irrational character in a movie filled with them.  Rather than tell Gus no, and playing up her ladylike superiority, she immediately runs and flees.  As Gus tries to explain himself and make something of a compelling case for himself as a suitable husband, Flora warns him that she’ll jump off a cliff if he comes closer.  This is baffling behavior and makes you wonder just how damn racist people were that a woman would rather commit suicide than let a black man come close to her.  We’re meant to assume that Gus is depraved and Flora assumes he’s going to rape her, but Gus is just scared and frankly a little confused at the object of his affection acting psychotic.

Pictured, the reaction to a black man wanting to talk to you
When Flora jumps off the cliff it’s as good as Gus killing her.  The frightening thing is that Dixon, and possibly Griffith meant to show Ben and his Klansmen lynching Gus as a sign of vigilante justice.  I wonder however if it is that simple.  Watching the film several times, Gus seems a bit clumsy but his only crime is asking a white woman to marry him.  Silas Lynch is much more deliberately criminal, which I’d like to think is the white half of his upbringing.  I have to laugh at the hypocrisy that they expose in the film regarding Austin Stoneman.  When Lynch tells his boss and mentor that he plans on marrying a white woman, Stoneman congratulates him until he finds out that the white woman is his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish).  He flips out, attacks Lynch and the idea is that racial integration is great until it’s your own family.  It is a bit disappointing reaction for Stoneman, who previously had Elsie break off her engagement with Ben for his KKK connection.  The man he supported and forced down South Carolina’s throats as the Lt. Governor isn’t good enough for his own daughter. 
Pictured: White Justice
Not long after this comes the film's most cringe worthy title card “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”  This is when the black militia are surrounding the cabin where the elder Cameron and his faithful servants are held up with two former Union soldiers.  According to Dixon, our mutual distrust and hatred of minorities has bridged the gap between the Union and Confederacy.  What more could you expect from a film where the heroes are the KKK?  It is deeply disturbing to see the KKK keeping black people from ballot boxes at the end as a sort of victory.  This is the type of shit that took a century to clean up in the deep South, where institutionalized racism still persists.  There is such a naiveté to this film, like Griffith wanted to show how progressive he was, but simultaneously had no idea what that meant.  This points to a larger problem in society, where racist people don't seem to be aware that they are racist.

The fucked up and disturbing aspects of this film's final act notwithstanding this is still a monumental work in the history of cinema.  It’s legacy is well documented.  Raoul Walsh who played John Wilkes Booth would later spend the next half century as one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.  Lillian Gish appeared in films up until the late 80s.  John Ford was said to have been an un-credited Klansman in this film, who went on to win four best director Oscars.  It’s not hard to get six degrees of separation to anyone in Hollywood history from this film and it’s cast/crew.  Griffith himself claimed to have invented nearly every film technique there was, but like Edison and his similar inventing claims most have historically been refuted.  There is no doubt that the success of the film helped spread a ton of Griffith’s devices to other filmmakers who were influenced by this.  Including tinting, irises, night photography, and wide panoramic shots.

 Perhaps no filmmaker was better influenced than Griffith by the film.  His masterpiece Intolerance was a direct response to this, and it helps right many of the wrongs in the second half of this film.  Broken Blossoms made in 1919 is arguably the first sympathetic interracial relationship in cinema, albeit white and Chinese, and of course the Chinese man was played by a white, but I digress.  Griffith eventually went bankrupt trying to top this film, and after making two talking films, one about Abraham Lincoln, he was essentially blacklisted.  It’s standing as the top grossing film of all time stood until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939. 

There is no doubt of it’s historical significance.  The cultural impact was immediate, and no matter the exaggerations and inaccuracies of some of the historical elements it’s impact on the evolution of film was unparalleled.  The question though remains whether it’s a great or even good film on it’s own.  Separate the film from it’s context and influence and is it worth watching?  Despite some pacing issues, the first half is incredible to behold.  The scale and scope is still impressive today, but the second half poses numerous problems.  The politics and the obvious blackface is hard to sit through, but despite how wrong the climax might be, Griffith was the all time master at inter-cutting and filming a last second rescue.  It was his stock and trade, and something he perfected from his early Biograph days, and by 1915 it was as ubiquitous to one of his films as an Alfred Hitchcock cameo in one of his. 

Due to the extraordinary execution, it’s hard not to get swept up in the finale as you wait for the Cameron patriarch to be rescued, and then you stop yourself and realize you’ve just been rooting for the Klan to save the day.  Before you condemn yourself as a racist monster, you might have slight epiphany about the power of cinema and what it can do in the right (or wrong) hands.  It is hard for a modern audience to like the film on it’s own merit, it doesn’t have the more broad and sweeping appeal of Intolerance but there is still some greatness to be found there.  So do your homework and watch it already.

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