American Cinema's Original Sin
When you're asked to choose the most influential film of the last hundred years, essentially you're being asked to choose the most influential film of all time, unless you want to hark back to Edison, Melies and the Lumiere brothers. You could make a strong case for dozens, even hundreds, of films, from Un Chien Andalou to Star Wars. The reflexive choice probably is Citizen Kane, which has been broadly influential in terms of technique. But, really, is there any other film LIKE Citizen Kane? It is sui generis, a stand-alone colossus on its peak in Xanadu. Everyone worships it (well, not everyone—Ingmar Bergman called it "a total bore," putting him in agreement with Carmela Soprano and The Onion's Jean Teasdale), but no one can truly be said to have imitated it.
There is one film, however, that early on established the basic language of cinema, in much the same way that The Canterbury Tales established the form and language of English literature. That film's director, D.W. Griffith—whom Orson Welles called "the premier genius of our medium"—began making films in 1908, and within seven years he transformed filmmaking from one- and two-reel shorts to the long-form features we know today. His masterpiece—a twelve-reel, three-hour epic—must have bowled over its first audiences with its unprecedented sweep and power. Griffith didn't necessarily invent close-ups, tracking shots, night filming, cross-cutting or the panoramic lens; however, in this film, he was the first to use them and other now-common techniques fully in the service of telling a story. Before this film, all movies were filmed plays; after it, cinema was an art form all its own. Every subsequent feature film is in its debt. It is the stylistic bedrock on which all later filmmakers have built, although very few people today have seen it except in the occasional film history class.
Unfortunately, that film is The Birth of a Nation.
When I say that few people today have seen The Birth of a Nation outside of a classroom, I should add that fewer still have any desire to see it, and many would protest its being exhibited anywhere, on or off of a college campus. It is a pioneering film epic—and a disgusting racist screed. (The comparison with The Canterbury Tales also is apt here, if you remember "The Prioress' Tale.") Forget about the film being considered racist only in retrospect; it was considered racist at the time of its first release, in 1915. The NAACP circulated articles and petitions denouncing the film's flagrant bigotry and falsehoods, and violent protests broke out in virtually every major American city where it played. In some states and cities, the film was banned outright. No one needs to ask why; everything you'd need to warm the heart of George Lincoln Rockwell is right here in this one three-hour movie. Portrayals of African-Americans (mostly by white actors in blackface) as children at best, scoundrels and predators at worst; vilification of the post-Civil War Reconstruction as the work of malevolent "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers;" glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as the heroic saviors, not only of the South, but of American civilization: The Birth of a Nation goes beyond mere political incorrectness into realms that leave modern audiences gaping in incredulous horror. Along with its mate in dazzling technique and dubious content—Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will—The Birth of a Nation resembles Springtime for Hitler without the laughs engendered by ineptitude.
The Birth of a Nation was the blockbuster hit of its era. It remained the world's highest-grossing film for twenty-two years, until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs overtook it. (Snow White held the crown for only two years, until it was topped by—you guessed it—Gone With the Wind.) Besides being influential in cinema, The Birth of a Nation was influential in more sinister ways. The film was not the sole catalyst for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, after four decades in quiescence, but it certainly helped the effort. Reportedly the Klan used The Birth of a Nation as a recruitment film at least into the 1970s, a decade after passage of the Civil Rights Act. In any case, the film added fire to American racism for decades afterward.
The Birth of a Nation is also a sad reminder that one of our most sainted presidents—Woodrow Wilson, avatar of world peace and the League of Nations—was a dyed-in-the-wool Southern racist. As president of Princeton University, Wilson routinely rejected admission applications from prospective black students; later, as president of the United States, he re-segregated the White House cafeterias and restrooms Theodore Roosevelt had desegregated. Thomas Dixon—author of The Clansman, the novel and play on which The Birth of a Nation was based—was a Princeton classmate of Wilson, and he arranged for Wilson a private screening of the film in the White House. The legend is that, after the screening, Wilson called the film "history written in lightning." Later, through a spokesman, Wilson denied ever saying that, or anything like it. But he could not deny the film's use of title cards that quoted his History of the American People directly: "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."
As raw as feelings ran during the civil rights battles of the 1960s, they could only have been fiercer in 1915. At that point, the Civil War had been over exactly fifty years, and millions of people still remembered it firsthand. According to historian James M. McPherson, the Civil War wiped out not only one-quarter of the South's men of military age, but most of its assessed wealth. "While Northern wealth increased by 50 percent from 1860 to 1870, Southern wealth decreased by 60 percent," McPherson wrote in the Feb. 14, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books. McPherson doesn't say in that article how much of the South's antebellum wealth was evaluated in slaves, but the point is taken. Try to imagine what it would be like today if the Vietnam War had been fought on American soil, and General Westmoreland, Ho Chi Minh and Abbie Hoffman all still lived side by side.
Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that the Civil War was a common subject both of early movies and turn-of the-century theater. Documentary filmmaker David Shepard, producer and narrator of a "Making Of" documentary accompanying the Image Entertainment DVD release of The Birth of a Nation, notes that Griffith alone directed 11 short Civil War films before The Birth of a Nation, and before that appeared as an actor in Civil War-themed plays. Griffith's wife, Linda Arvidson, acted in a touring company of The Clansman.
The time was ripe for a Civil War epic, and—with white supremacists such as Thomas Dixon rampant and Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court gave its formal blessing to Jim Crow, the law of the land—it was all too likely that such an epic would be racist in content.
For casual viewers watching The Birth of a Nation today, Griffith's cinematic innovations aren't immediately apparent. The indoor scenes are as stagey as in any movie of the period, and the acting—even that of the 21-year-old Lillian Gish, who went on to have one of the longest and most illustrious careers in thespian history—is stilted and pompous by our standards.
However, the film does build a compelling momentum that for modern audiences culminates in the brilliant battle scenes in the latter part of its first half. Based on the Battle of Petersburg fought in 1864, the battle scenes have a thrilling, almost documentary verisimilitude, as if Mathew Brady had had a movie camera. Of course those scenes can't match later films such as Saving Private Ryan for bloody realism; but the scenes of Griffith's battlefields fading into darkness, the cannons still exploding, are still extraordinarily powerful as well as esthetically breathtaking.
Similarly, Griffith's bitterly ironic aside—a title card bearing the caption, "War's Peace," followed by a close-up of mangled bodies on the battlefield—has lost little of its gut-punch power.
Unfortunately, Griffith's heartfelt antiwar message gets lost for today's audiences in the relentless onslaught of racism that comprises the film's second half. Not that the first part is free of racism—the early scenes of benevolent masters smiling on their childlike slaves are enough to make modern audiences retch—but it's garden-variety racism, of the sort common in Hollywood films right up until World War II. It is Part II of The Birth of a Nation that ratchets up the racial hysteria to truly sickening heights—all the more so for the panache with which Griffith tells the story. As writer Jesse Walker commented in Reason magazine, "In this movie, it's not so easy to disentangle the brilliant from the cringeworthy."
How do I even begin to describe the second half of The Birth of a Nation? Although one of Griffith's title cards carries a disclaimer saying that the film is not intended to condemn any race of people, the story that follows resoundingly demonstrates otherwise. Without exception, blacks are portrayed as a menace when asserting their independence, and good only to the extent that they make themselves subservient to whites. Griffith and Dixon save their greatest venom for the mixed-race politician Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, a white actor in light blackface), described as "a traitor to both races." Silas' career is promoted by the blinkered white Reconstructionist politician Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), who loudly declares Silas' equality right up until Silas demands to marry Stoneman's daughter Elsie (Gish) and calls in Federal troops to press his suit.
The fear of mixed-race marriage is the driving concern of The Birth of a Nation. The film's most infamous sequence is that of Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) throwing herself off a cliff rather than submitting to Gus (Walter Long, a white actor in dark blackface). The title cards make it plain that rape is not the "fate worse than death" Flora seeks to escape: "I've become a captain—and I want to marry," Gus tells Flora. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as the film would have it, not only does Gus seek to pollute the purity of white Southern womanhood within the bonds of matrimony, but he has been promoted beyond his station and his competence. (The film is full of sequences in which simple-minded black soldiers wreak havoc against white Southern families on the orders of "scalawag" white officers.)
As awful as the Flora-Gus sequence is, it is only one of many. Griffith claimed the scenes of a majority black South Carolina state legislature, in which the black delegates are portrayed as illiterate, barefoot hicks, were taken from histories of the period; in fact, they were taken from caricatures drawn by white supremacist cartoonists. At one point, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) expostulates on a newspaper story concerning a black magistrate and all-black jury denying justice to a white defendant. The irony here is so glaring and bitter that I will not insult my readers' intelligence by commenting on it further.
For sheer bathos, however, nothing in the history of cinema can top the sequence in which Ben Cameron, bemoaning the fate of his beloved South, sits on a rock watching a group of children—some of them white, some black—play hide-and-seek. The white children hide under a sheet, then jump out at the black children. The black children go into a bug-eyed, knock-kneed, Stepin Fetchit horror stance, and run away. A title card appears: "The Inspiration." Cameron stands up: Eureka! The film cuts to a row of mounted, white-sheeted Klansmen. Those Klansmen heroically go on to save Elsie Stoneman and the beleaguered Camerons, and to ensure "fair" elections by stationing themselves outside the polling place. The final scene depicts Jesus coming down from Heaven to bless this scene of peace and the honeymoon of Elsie Stoneman and Ben Cameron. I can't remember offhand if Bill Maher quoted that sequence in Religulous; if not, he'll certainly want it for the sequel.
And yet, because Griffith is such a masterful filmmaker, viewers are caught up in the story despite themselves, rooting for the Klansmen as they ride to the rescue of the Camerons and Stonemans fighting for their lives in a cabin surrounded by marauding, mostly black troops. It's like Hitchcock getting the audience to root for Norman Bates or Bruno Anthony, but without Hitchcock's ameliorating irony.
Surely the people who made The Birth of a Nation were mouth-foaming, carpet-chewing fanatics. If you supposed that about Thomas Dixon, you would be right. With Griffith, however, the record is more ambiguous. Griffith seems to have been genuinely shocked and hurt at being accused of racism after The Birth of a Nation was released, and he spent much of his subsequent career trying to clear himself of the charge. He tried to re-edit The Birth of a Nation to exclude all sequences involving the Klan; he also made a number of films condemning bigotry—most famously Intolerance, an epic about religious and ethnic prejudice through the ages, and Broken Blossoms, the tragic romance between a Chinese man and an Englishwoman in the slums of London. (But, again for modern audiences, Griffith undercut his claims of racial sensitivity by casting a Caucasian actor, Richard Barthelmess, as the Chinese man.)
So was Griffith a racist? Of course he was, but of a strange, sad sort that was prevalent in the America of Griffith's day. Born in Kentucky, Griffith was the son of a Confederate colonel whose fortunes were greatly depleted by the war; yet Griffith's biographers, including Richard Schickel, have noted that Griffith was never an active segregationist, as Dixon was. Griffith was a Southern sentimentalist who thought his generally warm feelings toward non-whites were enough to absolve him of the charge of bigotry, never imagining that his reflexive paternalism was as bad as Dixon's virulence. His list of films before The Birth of a Nation shows a curious inconsistency; he made films about faithful black retainers sacrificing their happiness for the sake of their white masters, but also one about an innocent plantation family attacked by evil Klansmen for refusing to join.
Within The Birth of a Nation itself, there is a similar dichotomy in its treatment of Abraham Lincoln, played in the film by Joseph Henabery. In the film, Lincoln begins as the ruthless oppressor of states' rights, but ends as "The Great Heart" who shows compassion and mercy to Confederate soldiers condemned as traitors. My guess is that Lincoln the Oppressor was Dixon's notion, whereas Griffith the Southern sentimentalist couldn't make up his mind.
"What all this suggests," wrote columnist Bryan Curtis in Slate magazine, "is that Griffith had no well-formed inner politics and that whatever ideology he put on the screen was malleable to the social whim of the moment (or whatever books he was reading)…He was a sophisticated filmmaker, but he wasn't a sophisticated thinker." I must add to this one final contradiction, noted by David Shepard: whereas Thomas Dixon repudiated the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan for violating the original organization's chivalric principles, Griffith opportunistically revived The Birth of a Nation wherever and whenever Klan rallies were held.
The Birth of a Nation, then, is a lasting emblem of the damage wrought when a great artist is also politically and morally tone-deaf. It is American cinema's original sin. Hollywood tries to sweep it under the rug—the Directors' Guild of America, for example, quietly removed Griffith's name from its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, in light of continuing protests over The Birth of a Nation. But the film keeps riding back on its white horse, in its white hood, holding a burning cross and cackling like a maniac. And no one can ever forget that this terrifying old loon was the founding father of the town.
Just as The Birth of a Nation premiered exactly fifty years after Appomattox, so the Civil Rights Act—championed by a white Southerner, Lyndon Baines Johnson, as a further affront to Thomas Dixon's ghost—became law exactly fifty years after The Birth of a Nation. Aptly, the film marks a midpoint in American race relations—one that allowed white supremacists to flex their muscles at the apex of their power, but also provided a flash point giving fresh impetus for disenfranchised blacks to fight for power of their own.
February 2009 will be the ninety-fourth anniversary of the premiere of The Birth of a Nation. That anniversary will go unmarked in an America which will have just inaugurated a mixed-race president, self-identified as African-American, who carried five former slave states, has a white senator from a former slave state as his vice president, and has nominated an African-American to serve as attorney general. That president will assume office in an America which celebrates the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday; which reveres Toni Morrison as its only living Nobel laureate in literature; and in which countless numbers of African-Americans have achieved the highest distinction in every field of endeavor, not least in D.W. Griffith's own—the cinema.
What Thomas Dixon would think of this is all too easy to guess. (What D.W. Griffith would think is less clear; he probably would be more outraged to learn that Harvey Fierstein named one of the drag queens in Torch Song Trilogy "Bertha Venation.") Some of the reactions to Barack Obama's candidacy and election, however, remind us—as if we needed reminding—that the spirit of Thomas Dixon, though no longer enjoying the de jure protection of law, is far from dead.
After six hundred years, we can admire and revere The Canterbury Tales without in any way buying into the blood libel of "The Prioress' Tale." In an America where the Klan—though diminished—still exists, and where racism is still a force, judging The Birth of a Nation on artistic merits alone is impossible. But we can acknowledge the importance of the film in cinematic history while casting its message on history's scrap heap, where it has always belonged.