It is very easy to judge controversial films with hindsight. That is not to say that what they present is right or morally acceptable, but that changing times and attitudes can lead to a different appreciation of a film or story
I always enjoy getting into films like this because they offer many questions. How would a contemporary audience have considered this? What modern sensibilities am I applying to my interpretation, and what does that mean?
Of course, it is a sad state of affairs that at the time of its release The Birth of a Nation was still stuck in the dark ages, so to speak. War was ravaging the world, women had still yet to gain the vote. Into this maelstrom of global and civil unrest came a film that explored the birth of the United States and some key moments in the country’s brief history.
This is, in essence, a treaty on the effects of war and the senseless death that often accompanies war hand in hand. For good measure we get a look at the tragedies of war – the letters returned home to grieving families, the possibilities of two friends meeting on opposite sides of the battlefield, etc.
As we move into part 2 of the film, it is also a reflection of attitudes towards the black communities that had been forceably transferred from Africa to act as slaves for the horribly blinkered white folk. The black community meanwhile aren’t given the most flattering of presentations, which is putting it mildly. That there were protests around the film’s release comes as no surprise to me.
In defence of DW Griffith, in a manner of speaking, a title card does state that it is a reflection of an earlier time and not representative of the time the film was made. But then on the other hand we have white men blacked up at various points which remained socially acceptable until only quite recently.
From a more technical standpoint, The Birth of a Nation is outstanding. Not only is it a true epic of early cinema, running for just over three hours in total, but a number of techniques are used that went on to become widespread in the industry. Tracking and dolly shots, for example, or the use of a hundred extras and a creative placement of the camera to conjure up an army of thousands. If it is true that Griffith didn’t have a script and simply shot the film as the images occurred in his mind, then that is another technical achievement for which the production can be praised.
It is a piece both of its time and of a time, one that was much less enlightened, relatively speaking, when compared to where we stand today. Why present the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light?
Yes there is work to be done – the recent uproar about the “so white” Oscars being a perfect example. The truth of the matter is that we’re getting there. Just take a look at the increase in recent times of mass market stories led by women, or the increase of films featuring either gay actors or gay characters. Times are a changing, for the better, and most importantly they aren’t necessarily being tailored for or by white men.
There is a whole spectrum of people from all walks of life out there, and what better way to explore this through cinema? For anyone who complains about seeing the same old scenarios playing out, time after time, in their big budget Hollywood blockbusters, you may consider giving indie films a chance – the variety in that somewhat vague umbrella term alone is staggering.
Of course, while the concept of slavery or stereotyping a race of people is an abhorrent one to a woolly liberal such as myself, there are a couple of lessons to take away here. First, that in the grand scheme of things everybody is and should be considered on an equal footing. The colour of their skin or their social status shouldn’t have any influence.
The second, that despite history being as unfortunate as it is, I disagree that there should be any sense of entitlement as a result of it, from any involved party. Entitlement is the slippery slope towards a reversion to old ways, where the real focus should be on how to avoid returning to that world.
In some respects, The Birth of a Nation could very well be making this point, but for me also points out exactly how far we have come in the last 100 years. Long may such progress continue.