Its racist politics aside, Birth of a Nation is a sublime example of the culmination of early Hollywood cinema. Griffith’s view — that it was not the economic rift between the North and South that threatened America after the Civil War, but the rampant and reckless exploitation by blacks on their white “civilizers” — feels so grossly and ridiculously reactionary, that it’s more quaint and buffoonish than anything remotely incendiary. I forgive Birth of a Nation its silly politics because, as an example of filmmaking, it set the standard for all Hollywood historical sagas to come.
Griffith’s mastery of the medium is at its most glorious here. His movie begins as an ode to the Old South, in the days preceding the war, and as a sprawling portrait of two families — the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South. Love blossoms between members of these two politically disparate clans just as the Civil War breaks out. It’s after the war, though, when the South must suffer the indignities of Reconstruction, that Nation’s politics rears its grotesque head.
The black mobs, newly liberated, take over state legislatures and run roughshod over the genteel streets of the white South. Women are threatened with rape and the old heroes of bygone days are mocked and ridiculed by — as Griffith would have it — a bunch of scheming, lecherous Negroes. Nation gathers steam as one of the Camerons — a veteran of the war who laments the degeneration of his land and people — establishes his vigilante organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith’s portrayal of the Klan as the saviors of the South — the redeeming and protective knights of besieged values — is troubling but, when viewed from a purely narrative standpoint, quite exhilarating. The ride of the Klan as they come to the rescue of a town overrun with drunken, gun-toting blacks uses sophisticated cross-cutting, juxtaposition, and all those cinematic devices to startlingly modern, suspenseful effect.
Can you enjoy Birth of a Nation as a purely cinematic experience? Of course! Just take its politics with a grain of salt, and you will come away fascinated by its old-world vision of America and awed by Griffith’s unerring gift for storytelling on film. This is a masterpiece that still packs a punch and whose standard-bearing genius remains untarnished.
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods, Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.
Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Ralph Lewis