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the original letter from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) asking that the film be withdrawn.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?


2 comments on “THE BIRTH OF A NATION

  1. undoubtly, The Birth of a Nation was show that started cinema back then, as DW Griffith attempted and used techniques that have never been used before and compared to the other films shown in class from back then, this film shows a newer, more modern and sphistcated way of filming. as rey said, the director paid alot of attention into making sure that it was historically relevant, and reproduced alot of the backdrops and scenes. I personally thought that it was contradictory to a certain extent because if he was so particular about making sure that everything was historically correct, all the scenes and how he depicted the black people is the total opposite of what actually happened, and people know that, so obviously it came out extremely racist. he totally switched the roles of the white and blacks, ‘white minorities?’ -made not sense to me because if I’m correct, the blacks were the slaves at that time and THEY were the minorities. when I read the review by James agee, where he said smth about the director understanding the blacks and thats why he depicted them in that way- feet on the tables, eating and drinking during meetings, and even the subtle but strong facial expressions, I was wondering to myself on how can he say that the director understood them? does that mean he understood them as savages? or the lower class? I agreed more with what Jane Addams had to say and since DW Griffith was a southerner and practiced slavery, I would assume that he was absolutely fine in the whole idea of slavery. eventhough it was a great piece of art, i dont think it should have been made with such a strong racist incline. for me, that was probably one of the few things that stuck in my mind from the entire film and it kind of destroys part of it’s beauty.

  2. I liked how DW Griffith brought new elements to the screen, progressing the film industry to the next generation with unlimited idea to carry out modern ways to film the American Civil War. The historical accuracy of the scenes in the first part of the film must be praised. But when it comes to the whole film, the accuracy decrease dramatically with contents of racist ideology. Since this film was stated and packed with numerous facts and evidences, the later part of the story could have perceived by Whites reasonably authentic. I have to say that in more personal wiews, I was quite disturbed by the later part of the film.

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