DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is, perhaps, the most important film ever made in the United States. It created the modern film industry and pioneered so many of the narrative techniques we now take for granted.
However, it is, even after almost a century, still an object of controversy. Here is the great novelist and film critic James Agee’s appreciative review in The Nation magazine. Among other things he says:
This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. “The Birth of a Nation” is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest” — whatever that means — but as the one great epic, tragic film.
Here is an account of the ways in which the film distorts and manipulates the history of reconstruction. The site also posts the original letter from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) asking that the film be withdrawn.
Jane Addams, the great American social activist, said this about the film:
The producer seems to have followed the principle of gathering the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people, and showing them as representatives of the truth about the entire race,” she said in describing her impressions of the play. “It is both unjust and untrue. The same method could be followed to smirch the reputation of any race. For instance, it would be easy enough to go about the slums of a city and bring together some of the criminals and degenerates and take pictures of them purporting to show the character of the white race. It would no more be the truth about the white race than this is about the black.
The movie resulted directly in the rebirth of the “second” Ku Klux Klan, starting in 1915.
What do you think?