#44 The Birth of a Nation

#44 The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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This one was hard to watch. A three-hour run time for a silent, 100-year-old film is never going to be easy on the ass and lower back. But what makes watching The Birth of a Nation such a painful experience  is that it’s just so racist. It’s so racist that I defy you to watch it and not feel uncomfortable.

It’s a movie in which white actors wear poorly applied blackface makeup and attack and threaten defenseless white women in their homes. It’s a movie that suggests the former slaves freed following the Civil War turned the state legislatures into zoos, taking off their shoes and behaving like animals in the political buildings. A movie that suggests that congressional leaders and abolitionists sought to crush the white South under the heel of the black South. A movie that shows a struggling former confederate South being driven into anarchy by the recently freed slaves, and being rescued by the KKK. The KKK literally rides in to save the day, defeating a militia consisting solely of (as far as I can recall) African-Americans, as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries swells in the background.

It was made in 1915. It is being completely frank, completely honest. It is presented with no subtext. There is nothing to decipher. It is unadulterated racist propaganda. And for decades, until Gone With the Wind, it was Hollywood’s highest-grossing film.

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I was surprised by the film’s attitude toward Abraham Lincoln. I somehow thought that the President would be portrayed in an entirely disparaging light, as a great villain for crushing the rebellion. But instead the film proclaims that Lincoln’s “fostering hand” aided the South as it rebuilt itself. And when the Cameron family learns of Lincoln’s assassination they are shattered, and wonder “What is to become of us now?”

The assassination itself, which the film claims to portray with perfect historical accuracy, does smack of hero-worship. Mr. Booth looks the consummate action hero, shooting Lincoln before vaulting from the balcony onto the stage, triumphantly declaring “Sic semper tyrannis!”, and as far as the film is concerned with, getting away scott free.

And yet for all its vile offenses, The Birth of a Nation is surprisingly watchable. Although ugly and worn, if you can keep your attention span and don’t turn it off out of disgust or boredom, it holds up.  Credit for this is down to D.W. Griffith’s directorial pedigree. In 1915 he created Hollywood’s first epic and utilized groundbreaking techniques that set the stage for the directors that followed. But these achievements are swallowed up in disgrace. His film set the stage for the racists that followed him as well. Evidently when the film premiered, the KKK was an all but disbanded institution. The Birth of a Nation helped apply the defibrillator and brought it back.

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