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The Birth of a Nation
Year:
1915
Country:
USA
Genre:
Drama, Western, History, War, Romance
IMDB rating:
6.8
Director:
D.W. Griffith
Lillian Gish as Elsie - Stoneman's Daughter
Wallace Reid as Jeff - the Blacksmith (as Wallace Reed)
Spottiswoode Aitken as Dr. Cameron
Josephine Crowell as Mrs. Cameron
Elmer Clifton as Phil - Stoneman's Elder Son
Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln (as Jos. Henabery)
Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron - The Pet Sister
Robert Harron as Tod - Stoneman's Younger Son
Walter Long as Gus - a Renegade Negro
Mary Alden as Lydia - Stoneman's Mulatto Housekeeper
George Siegmann as Silas Lynch - Mulatto Lieut. Governor (as George Seigmann)
Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron - Elder Sister
Ralph Lewis as Hon. Austin Stoneman - Leader of the House
Henry B. Walthall as Col. Ben Cameron (as Henry Walthall)
Storyline: Two brothers, Phil and Ted Stoneman, visit their friends in Piedmont, South Carolina: the family Cameron. This friendship is affected by the Civil War, as the Stonemans and the Camerons must join up opposite armies. The consequences of the War in their lives are shown in connection to major historical events, like the development of the Civil War itself, Lincoln's assassination, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
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Reviews
Achievement, Sure. Good, Not Really. Entertaining, No. Racist, HELL YEAH.
Just because something is the first of something doesn't necessarily make it good. Its also pretty moronic to look at the achievement without looking at its context. "Pong" or "Tennis for Two" could be considered a achievement in Video Games. Dose anyone considered them to be the best video games ever made. Clearly the movies that came after were clearly superior. Can you really say this is better than Citizen Kane, Casablanca, 12 Angry Men and other classics. Not to mention that Trip to The Moon, Nosferatu, Any Charlie Chaplin or Lon Chaney movie are far more entertaining. Sure did this movie give to new techniques to film making, Sure. But that alone dose not make it good. Nor should the context of the movie be completely ignored just because of it. Not to mention Historians (Not Film Historians) don't put this movie in a positive light. Most of them credit for the boost of recruitment in the KKK. Its only Crazy Film Critics that think that achievement comes before context. We don't look at Nazi Propaganda Films and say "Well its a hateful film. But its just so well made. Its must be a Masterpiece." If this movie was made today. It would be put down for being as a racist movie and rightfully so. The fact its the first feature length movies. Doesn't make it great.
2014-04-15
"A plea for the art of the motion picture"
Third time I've seen this racist film in forty years; that's probably mysteriously enough to make me a racist to people in the antiracist industry. That's also probably enough times for me to see it too – never again! A century on and this film still has the power to divide opinion and even shock some sensitive souls and I even guarantee that less people in this lovely world have been shocked by Salo or A Serbian Film than by this. Those two examples of vile obscenity are probably blithely watched by the world's antiracists without any qualms, and they would likely defend to the death the rights of the violent perverts who made them, but not this one. The Prophet may be fervently insulted by present-day other-believers in the Name of Free Speech, but a silent film made by racists in a previous civilisation almost has the power to send millions of selective-egalitarians into paroxysms. Where are all the antiracists whenever there's a genocide going off, too busy complaining about images and words which don't suit them?

We all know what this is about: The American Civil War is fought at first for the Union then for Emancipation, the North wins, the South loses; Southern Negroes are turned from being absolute slaves fighting for freedom to being US wage-slaves fighting for jobs, which is a much cheaper option for colour-blind capitalism. The film itself is competent and cogent with excellent direction and photography for the time, and the first part is fairly straightforward. The contentious part is the Reconstruction, in which several Liberties were taken by the author and acquiesced to by the producers. All very unnecessary and nasty! The message appealed to a vast white market at the time, a market that still exists - although I very much doubt any of those many supremacist Chelsea fans on the French train barring entrance to a single black man recently had even heard of this film or the Ku Klux Klan! The actual reconstruction was a gruesomely complicated affair and not easy to glamourise by Hollywood, although its overall image of the South certainly was – I always found the apparently acceptable Gone With The Wind just as racist as this only glossier. But as for that so-called wonderful comedy Blazing Saddles, which black people tend to appreciate more than white - so much for Time healing all wounds!

I'm sure there were many vindictive Northerners and ex-slaves back then just as I'm sure there are many vindictive present-day antiracists; not only racists have agendas. Griffiths "may not have feared censorship" and lamely disclaimed on the intertitles that the picture was "not meant to reflect on any race or people of today" and afterwards came up with a movie with the scope of Intolerance as a possible atonement but will this continue to be remembered by the current crop of egalitarians. Will copies of this nasty yet revered fiction film be allowed to exist outside of the Library Of Congress in another century's time? It's interesting tripe - I simply don't see it as either enriching or enhancing in any way but refuse to worry about it or advise anyone else to be worried by it.
2015-03-29
The Conventional Wisdom is Partially Right
The conventional wisdom about "The Birth of a Nation" is that it represents an impressive and innovative display of cinematic skill that was unfortunately wasted on a story that promotes a bizarre and disturbing point of view. While that is certainly true in a general way, it might also be something of an oversimplification.

It really is almost like two different movies. The first part, which takes place in the era before and during the Civil War, contains little objectionable material, and it deserves praise both technically and for the acting. The second part, set in the reconstruction era, contains almost all of the disturbing material, and it also is really not all that great in terms of cinematic quality.

Then also, the degree to which "The Birth of a Nation" may have influenced the development of cinema has very likely been overstated . The controversy that it generated may very well have helped it to remain better known than other films of the era that were equally innovative and/or lavish, or nearly so.

If the movie had ended shortly after the memorable and well-crafted Ford's Theater scene, the anti-war sentiment and similar themes would remain the main focus, since the effects of war on families and individuals is depicted convincingly and thoughtfully. In that case, its occasional lapses would possibly at the worst be called "dated", given the quality of the rest of this part of the movie.

The second half, though, is completely unfortunate in almost every respect. Not only does it promote a distorted viewpoint, but the story becomes labored, and the characters lose their depth and become more one-dimensional. The purely technical side, such as the photography and the use of cross-cutting, might still be good, but much of the rest of it loses its effectiveness.

Perhaps more importantly, it really seems rather difficult to justify the credit that this one film gets in the development of cinema. There had already been numerous feature-length movies, and most of the techniques that Griffith used were also in use by others. He may well have been ahead of the pack in terms of appreciating their possibilities, but that does not mean that cinema would not have developed as it did without this particular movie.

Just as one example, the Italian epic "Cabiria", from the previous year, has the same kind of lavish scale, is quite resourceful in its techniques, and is quite entertaining, without causing so much controversy.

Other early feature-length films also include some creative efforts to adapt film-making techniques to longer running times and more complex stories. Finally, many short features from the pre-Griffith era experimented with the same kinds of techniques that he later would use systematically. There's no denying Griffith's considerable technical skill, but others of the era also deserve some credit, even if they and their works were less controversial, and are now largely forgotten as a result.
2005-01-26
What does it mean to say something is 'Politically Correct'?
I don't think there's ever been a more maligned phrase than "politically correct" out there; the words immediately evoke a kind of liberal pseudo-fascism that some would have you believe is dominating freedom of speech and thought around universities and media outlets everywhere. I'm not so sure about that, but I am concerned at the counter-trend, of things that are labeled politically incorrect now proudly sporting that label as if they were a rebel, a David fighting these psedo-fascist Goliaths. That is hardly the case. D.W. Griffith's movie, far from being a politically incorrect movie unfairly condemned by the liberal elite, was a movie that perpetuated and, to a certain extent, created a Southern Myth that was damning to black people all throughout the country. The scary bit about this movie is not that it is one voice amoung many giving a personal recount of reconstruction. The movie is not presented that way, nor was it received that way. Until the 1960s, this movie WAS the commonplace, everyday understanding of reconstruction, understood by both Northerners and Southerners (aside: notice how the movie intentionately put as much distance between Northerners and Southerners as possible? The enemy is blacks and "radicals" (who were nothing of the sort), not Lincoln or the union soldiers. The movie was trying to appeal to a Northern audience).

Anyone who ever complains about the political correctness or historical "revisionism" of today's academics, see this movie. And understand, that it is the work of historical "revisionists" that are responsible for teaching the facts about our nation's history, grasped out of the hands of fictions like Griffith's horrific Birth of a Nation. And don't be so smug about complaining of political correctness in the future.

And don't try to seperate this film as an artistic work with the historical perspective of the film. Keep in mind, this film was not only a portrayl of history, it was also a *part* of history. It served to defend racial segregation, lychings, and the Klan at a time when all three of those were very real political issues. It is not a coincidence that the greatest period of lychings and Jim Crow laws came shortly after this movie. In short, this film oppressed people. So don't treat it like it existed in an entertainment vacuum, unaffected by and unaffecting everything else around it.
2000-07-17
History is Never Politically Correct
You cannot judge this film by today's cultural standards - don't put your own value system on this nearly 100 year old film. JUST BE THANKFUL WE HAVE EVOLVED. It's shocking today to see such a view point because victors (re)write the history books where the ravages of Reconstruction have been all but eradicated. Only 50 years after the war, Griffith had reasons to choose and Dixon had reasons to write The Clansman.

The movie wasn't made for the glory of the clan, but of the "necessity" of the FIRST clan as a response to the stealing of lands by Federal Officers, as the Kentucky Griffith family well knew. How Reconstruction went in your southern neck of the woods depended on who your Officer was. If he wasn't bought off by Carpetbaggers and Scalawags, you might keep your house by paying semi-inflated taxes; if he was bought off, God help you- you were out, (that's why so many houses had GTT painted on them - Gone To Texas). Lee said he never would have surrendered if he had know what Thad. Stevens (Stoneman in the film) and Edmund Stanton had planned with misnomered reconstruction. The bitterness from the vengeance of Reconstruction is what precipitated Jim Crow which never would have happened if the Confederacy had been allowed to secede. The Confederacy never would have lasted more than 20 years because of in-fighting. For economic reasons each state would come back into the Union one by one. To be reinstated each state would have had come in without slavery which was on its way out due to the industrial age. Thus there wouldn't have been the loss of life or bitterness against blacks that Reconstruction itself precipitated. With only a few other places, it was mainly in South Carolina where the legislature was taken over by blacks who in the main did not have any education and were the puppets for the Scalawags (white republicans). Historical fact: South Carolina was purposely made the most to suffer (including Sherman's March which was worse in SC than GA) for leaving the Union first.

According to Griffith's film, Birth of a Nation was born in that little cabin when North and South had to defend themselves from a negr0 takeover (the film's words) - thus the clan to the rescue. (Being thrown out for taxes was more common.) Unfortunately the film, shown for 44 straight months in New York alone, caused the rise of the second KKK which had the most members in Ohio and Indiana in the 20s and 30s. After a scandal with the Imperial Wizard of Indiana, clan membership decreased with hold-outs in the South into the 50s and 60s. It was smashed in the 70s with today's off-shoot of ne0-Nazis. You can be sure the KKK is dead because they never would have allowed today's Mexican immigration into the USA and there have not been vigilantes throwing them out with cross burnings, hangings and the like atrocities.

To see the variety of plantation life read Frederick Olmstead's tour of and titled book 'Slave States,' to understand plantation politics. This dedicated abolitionist in today's terms would be considered blatantly racist. But you have to remember that the 'rebellion' started as fight to leave the Union and Northerners were fighting to keep the South in the Union, the fight was not about Slavery. Lincoln emancipated the slaves - a campaign promise he went back on, he said he wouldn't - and only in the South, not for (Grant's) slaves in the North. In 1863 seasoned Yankee fighters left in droves when their 2 year enlistment was up because they were fighting for the Union, not for abolition. Scorsese covered the riots that happened in New York because of the Lincoln's draft in 'Gangs of New York.'

Southern California in 1915 was not very populated, especially by blacks. The film industry had just moved there. "Holidays" were instituted for whole populations of nearby towns to be extras in films. (If you've been an extra you know that where you get placed in a set does not give you a clue as to what's going on in the movie or the script.) There were still a few minstrel shows left, black face was still semi-popular, even blacks put on black face to do their own minstrel shows. It was from this tradition that the not rare black face was used in the film, but also know that these were seasoned actors who knew how to take direction and "act," it wasn't because a black person was excluded, even though it would have been too much for audiences to have seen a white woman falling into the arms of a real black man in 1915 (only 50 years after the war) – note: mammy's were OK, but this film's mammy was a man in black face in order act in "her" fight scene (Hattie McDaniels was not in Hollywood yet, there wasn't even a Hollywood yet). Even integrating real blacks in the film, rather than just whites in black face was considered controversial in 1914.

I'm a historian from ultra-liberal San Francisco, so don't call me a racist. History is never politically correct, but it IS written by the victors. That is why it is so shocking today to see this view point, which by the way was then banned in several places, including Boston, and there were plenty of protests at the time. Griffith's father, a colonel in the confederate army, had seen first hand the ravages of war and reconstruction. Only because Griffith was the first director with the ability to produce such extensive film, was he able to decided what to put on film.

Griffith's next film, 'Intolerance,' was his reaction to 'Birth's ...' criticism. If you would see 'Intolerance' before 'Birth...', by today's standards you would say, "What foresight!" (against the death penalty - of the innocent) and much more, his best film).
2006-10-25
A combination of innovative film techniques and outright racist content
The Birth of a Nation is quite unique in its combination of innovative film techniques and outright racist content. It has sometimes been praised by American critics as the birth of an art, but this is ignoring what had happened before outside of the United States with films such as Cabiria. Griffith will be even more creative with his masterpiece created the following year: Intolerance.

The main interest of The Birth of a Nation is for me historical. It shows the deep conviction of white people in 1915 that black people could not be equal to them and that they did not even feel this was a racist attitude. Griffith was born only ten years after the end of the Civil War, at the end of the Reconstruction era, in Kentucky, one of the border States which initially declared itself neutral and only eventually affirmed its Union status. His father served as a Confederate Army Colonel. Griffith apparently sincerely believed that the Ku-Klux-Klan would be the saviour of America. As quoted by actress Lilian Gish in her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, he famously answered when he was accused of being anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives." According to the film, the inspiration for the KKK was white children dressed as ghosts to scare black children.

a-cinema-history.blogspot.com/2013/10/
2013-11-01
The Birth of Popaganda Films
I see from the many current comments on this turkey that it is no less controversial today than ever. It's racism so overwhelms anything else about this movie that comments about it being a landmark in film making technique seem totally beside the point. It had a permanent effect on race relations in this country. The fact that it was probably the most profitable film of all time shows how many people saw it. Arguably, race relations in the USA might have been much improved had the film never seen the light of day. That's how significant this film was.

The main point being that this film is the Birth of the propaganda film. It showed how powerful a medium film could be--which probably surprised even Griffith. Perhaps if he had realized how much his film was going to further racism in general, he might have had second thoughts about making it at all. He spent the rest of his life trying to undo it's evil effects, starting immediately with his next film Intolerance the next year. I don't think anybody realized the power of film to influence society until this film was released.
2004-11-27
A Tale of Two Movies
D.W. Griffith has made two movies and put them on the same set of reels. The first half of the movie depicts antebellum south and the Civil War. The second half of the movie depicts the reconstruction of the south after the civil war. But they are more than just halves of the movie; they are really two different movies. The first part is a sincere attempt to recreate the factual events of the Civil War as told through the eyes of the Stonemans and the Camerons. The second part is just as sincere, but the focus is on the myths and emotions of the south after the civil war.

The first half of the film tracks orthodox history so closely (and there are those "AN HISTORICAL FACISIMILIE" notes on some of the slides) that it is easy to think the rest is correct history, too. Maybe that was what D.W. Griffith was trying to achieve. In any case, the real history of the second part is the true history of the fears and mythology of the white south after the war. They often did look on blacks as children who needed to be cared for to keep them from hurting themselves. They did think slavery was good for the blacks. They did think that a black man wanted nothing more badly than to live in a nice white mansion and to have a white wife. The second half of the film doesn't portray the history of events so much as the history of emotions.

Is this an outdated movie? Look at the reaction of the white establishment to popular black entertainers. They are outraged by videos on MTV or BET of strong black men who have money and sexual virility. Why is that? I think some of that outrage is the continuing echoes of the white fears of black sexuality so strongly brought out in this movie. Margaret Cameron's father Dr. Cameron is prepared to kill her before the blacks get her. Flora Cameron jumps to her death rather than be raped by a black man. The mulattoes, the products of the sexual unions Whites feared the most are depicted as the worst in the film -- from Austin Stoneman's mulatto maid who is sexually after him to the uncomfortably named Silas Lynch who is the mulatto who runs the town after the blacks take over.

Is this a racist movie? Of course, but I really didn't have any problem with the racism in the plot of the movie. It was easy to understand and absorb -- like reading a speech by Jefferson Davis in a history book. The racism that kept bugging me when I was watching the movie was the racism in Hollywood itself. All of the black and mulatto characters that get any significant amount of screen time are all white actors in blackface. When there were actually blacks used, it was only as extras -- such as when they show slaves picking cotton.

Cinematic skill - Griffith often uses some kind of mask to block out distracting edges of the picture or to frame a portrait picture of the actor. It has the effect of focusing your attention where he wants you to look. It makes for a tighter shot and probably was a substitute for a close-up lens. I assume there were no moving zoom lenses, but Griffith makes up for that by using a mask that can widen or shrink to give a zoom in or zoom out effect.
2005-10-31
Bigotry Portrayed as Heroism
Many reviews disappointed me about this movie. I read many of them before I watched this and was utterly unprepared for what I saw.

Other reviews praising this movie annoy me endlessly now that I've watched it. They said aside from the racism, this movie was amazing. This movie is racism in its purest form; you can't just pretend it's not there and focus on how well the camera is angled or how amazing the acting is.

They portrayed African Americans as brainless souls whose only wants were to rape and ravage white women, and then the 'heroic' Ku Klux Klan storms in saving the day. The storyline is completely inaccurate.

A review I read said, 'that's just how America was back then, and blacks weren't seen as equals.' Treating that like it was NO big deal. Yes, it is a big deal; one you should and cannot forget about or brush aside for the entertainment of a movie.

I do not mean to slander other reviewers, because that was their honest opinion. I only mean to tell people how I feel about this movie.
2010-06-12
Something Every Filmmaker (or Filmwatcher) Must Contemplate
"Birth of a Nation" is a film that occupies a unique space in film history. It is the movie that started all movies. It was the first blockbuster and provided a textbook on editing, cinematography, and film story structure. It has been studied endlessly over the years and Griffith's techniques were copied and expanded by the Soviets in the 20s. However, that being said, it is also the most racist and offensive film ever put on screen. It indoctrinated many people into racist action and hurt many African communities.

When anyone thinks about being a filmmaker, one has to consider that "Birth of a Nation" started it all. One has to ask are they really supporting a medium that was started by a hateful film? Are they contributing to the problem? This applies to people who watch movies to.

These questions cannot be answered by censoring the film or by marginalizing it. The film must studied, broken down, challenged by people who understand it and want to defeat it. To censor racism is to resort to the ignorance that is racism. The only way to truly combat the power of this film is to understand its power and fight back.
2005-09-18
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