Monday, 4 May 2015

The Birth of Hollywood, in Blood and Guts

DVD Notes: “The Birth of a Nation”


The thrilling ride of the KKK in D.W. Griffith's momentous war epic "The Birth of a Nation"

This year marks the centenary of the release of D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic, generally regarded as the first major feature-length film – which would make this year the centennial year for feature-length narrative cinema. This blog is specifically devoted to this art form, and this would be an unfortunate milestone to pass up, and the film would be an unfortunate entry to be omitted. Regrettably, the film is also an unfortunate one to be included. Much has been written on the offensive and pernicious portrayals of black people in this film, which have been seen as such since the day of the film’s release. I say this is unfortunate, because it is in this spirit of prejudice and intolerance that modern cinema was born, and the very worst thing about this film and its offensiveness is that it’s an aesthetically brilliant achievement. (Richard Brody says as much in his blog post on the film, which can be read here.) It’s a great pioneering work, which made much of today’s cinema possible, and established many techniques and devices that have been used universally to great effect in the last century. Roger Ebert wrote of it, “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” We can, and probably should, hate this film for what it is, but we (movie goers and filmmakers alike) and our cinematic heritage are ineluctably in its debt for much of what we love.

The Birth of a Nation was one of the first films to feature its own original score. Not all of it was entirely originally composed for the film – some pieces were adaptations of classical works – but the musical cues were carefully synchronised to what appeared on the screen, and what you hear when you watch it is exactly what Griffith intended you to hear at each moment. It need not be stressed what influence that has had on all films made since then. Even if all else were exactly the same, imagine how differently (surely for the worse) films like Star Wars, Psycho, Raging Bull, Vertigo, The Godfather and a host of others would have turned out.

A device used for centuries before in literature was now appropriated by cinema – the juxtaposition and merging of national, historical events with home life in the telling of a story. Griffith had made a number of Civil War shorts prior to The Birth of a Nation which had done something similar, but this epic did it on a much grander, far more encompassing scale. It made for action and storytelling which is both psychologically intimate and immensely rousing. It firmly establishes itself in the contemporary mood and consciousness, and the gap between then and now disappears – for the film’s 1915 audience, and for those who watch it today. And Griffith uses this new tool for timely wonder to press a fervent agenda, and convey insidious and destructive lies, about the nation’s history, and about its black population. Surely some degree of historical accuracy must have been in Griffith’s interests: many people alive at the time had also been alive during the Civil War. In fact, some of the extras in the scene of Lincoln’s assassination were eye-witnesses of the actual incident, who were in the theatre when John Wilkes Booth shot the president. That scene in particular is noted for its accuracy: the theatre was rebuilt to its exact measurements, and all detail was recreated as closely as possible to the real event.

But much of the history was not treated with the same respect for fact by Griffith. Or, perhaps, he thought it was – I’m not sure how truthful Griffith thought his film was in the telling of the Reconstruction after the war. He may have been convinced he was relaying gospel truth, which seems to be the case in some of the letters and articles he wrote in reaction to the many criticisms the film received. But whether or not he thought he was telling the truth is irrelevant to the effect the film carries.

The most horrific of the film’s messages and ideologies is its celebration of the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan. The title-cards introducing the second half of the film quote from a history of America by the contemporary president, southerner Woodrow Wilson, which tells us that the Klan was necessary in the Reconstruction to protect the now vulnerable white southerners from the new black force rampaging through the south – to prevent the crush of the white south under the black south’s heel.

In a 1915 editorial of the New York Globe in response to Griffith’s film, it’s reported that when the Civil War was over, the slaves, though suddenly emancipated, had no way of earning a living except by going back to work for their former masters, exhibited enormous patience. During the struggle, they had protected the wives and children of the Confederate soldiers, who were fighting in a conflict which was to decide whether they were to become free men or remain possessions of the white southerners. Griffith’s presentation of them as sexual predators and lazy, inefficient workers is a distasteful and wicked distortion of history. The editor’s remarks remain particularly significant even (perhaps especially) today: “Bad things occurred, but what man will say that the outrages of black on white equalled in number the outrages of white on black? Which race even to the present day has the better right to complain of the unfairness and brutality of the other?” And to the immense injury the black Americans had suffered was added this gross slander.

In Griffith’s film, the threat of Klan violence – specifically, lynchings – as well as the move to keep the vote away from the black people, is the only way to protect white southerners, especially women, from newly liberated black men. Griffith’s film depicts black characters exclusively as foolish, servile, or menacing, and the white characters, with few exceptions, as noble and valiant in their slaughter of black people. The one dastardly white character in the film is a Thaddeus Stevens-type congressman who advocates for racial equality.

Another grievance often brought up about the film is that most of the black characters are played by white actors in blackface. This, however, is not a problem specific to Griffith’s film, but to the entire film industry which was, at the time, like the rest of the country, heavily segregated. In an interview to promote the film, Griffith had this to say about it: “There has been question as to why I did not pick real negroes or mulattos for those three roles. That matter was given consideration, and on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principals; it was only in the legislative scene that negroes were used, and then only as ‘extra people’.” The details which concerned Griffith was principally that no black actors were to come into contact with white female actors, presumably an extension of the prejudice and discrimination he so brazenly exhibits in his story.

Much of Griffith’s racism, however, is not to be dismissed as a mark of the times in which the movie was made. There were many who found the film offensive when it was released, and expressed as much, such as the editor of the Globe in the editorial I mentioned. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) organised public protests of the film, and it was banned in a number of cities, whose leaders thought it would do much harm by inciting racial violence.

And, it can be argued, the film succeeded in that regard. This emotionally inflammatory epic, in pressing its belief that free black people posed a threat to the white population, has been linked to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the years of World War I, whose numbers had been languishing for over a decade. The Birth of a Nation helped, in part, usher in a new era of clan violence, and may, in some small way, have been a factor in keeping the vote from black citizens for as long as many southern states did. Ava DuVernay’s Selma is one mere step and one flagstone on the path to recovery from the harms done by prominent Americans such as Griffith.

Not all effects of this barefaced malice were bad, however – which can be said of any catastrophe or unfortunate event in human history. IT was met with a cinematic rejoinder from the black perspective. Oscar Micheaux, a former porter who became a novelist and filmmaker, wrote and directed the first ever African-American feature films – more than forty between 1919 and 1948. His feature Within Our Gates, made in 1920, was in response to The Birth of a Nation, and explicitly contradicts Griffith’s history of the American south, presenting a world in which white power prevails, to the detriment of innocent black people. Within Our Gates was shown to mostly black audiences, and inspired a range of independent race films, made by and for black audiences. These race films provided black audiences with images of African American experiences, and uplifted the race by countering the ideologies of white supremacy and its effects. Black filmmakers remained on the fringes for decades, though, and were only allowed into technical guilds in Hollywood in the 1970s. Even black actors only began making their way into the mainstream after Sidney Poitier became a star in the 1960s, and still today issues of inequity are being fought over in Hollywood. When a black director makes a major Hollywood film, such as 12 Years a Slave or Selma, it’s still treated as a remarkable anomaly. Of course, most of this is due to the entire country’s racial politics, not a single silent film, no matter how epic or influential. But these are the limiting and unfair values and ideologies which Griffith’s film both espoused and, in its own way, helped carry.

Certainly, there are problems with the film other than the racism of the Reconstruction scenes in the second half. Griffith’s sympathies are very clearly with the South, but it’s no surprise: his father was a colonel in the Confederate army. Home life in the Camerons’ South Carolina home is filmed throughout with an affectionate benevolence. While the Stonemans’ home in Pennsylvania is tinted to look clean and cold, the Camerons’ home scenes are tinted mainly in red and yellow, to give a sense of romance, or warmth and serenity. The Camerons are shown to be decent and upright people, and are the ones who nobly suffer the attacks of the renegade freed slaves. Stoneman and his crew are vicious, conniving, power-hungry, and thoroughly immoral. And Griffith’s very title seems to say that his great country America was born in the reclaiming of the south by the whites from the blacks. The same Globe editor quoted above called this “an insult to Washington,” who declared that the nation was born in the Revolution, nearly a hundred years prior.

Still, the effectiveness of the film cannot be denied. The music, though repeated quite often, is used to great effect. Many charming, everyday moments are shown, details inessential to the story, but working to recreate a happy and charming scene. Griffith lingers on a number of scenes after the main action has passed, showing us moments in the performances and the scenery of real beauty and astonishment. The battle scenes are tremendously thrilling. Griffith tinted a number of them in red, perhaps to indicate a night-time setting, but the image, explosive with detonations and clouded in smoke as it is, evoked for me an inferno, a vision of Hell, as only war can provide. There is the terrific inspiration of inter-cutting a battle scene with the Cameron family praying in their home, reminding us of not only the great and important historical implications, but also the personal costs of war. Griffith never shies away from dust, dirt, heat, smoke, terror, brutality or death in the battle sequences, and reaches moments of extraordinary beauty and potency, such as the shot of the two friends, one Union one Confederate, one Cameron and one Stoneman, meeting on the battlefield, and dying in each other’s arms. There is a truly chilling shot of John Wilkes Booth in the shadows of Ford's theatre, moments before he enters President Lincoln's box, and much can be read, in print and all over the internet, of the immense thrill of the ride of the KKK, referenced over 60 years later in Francis Ford Coppola's own war epic, Apocalypse Now.

It would be far easier to deal with the politics and ideology of Griffith’s film if it weren’t the immense aesthetic achievement that it is. The film’s greatness, and its influence on all films that followed, complicates enormously how we are to view it. Kent Jones wrote in an article in the renowned magazine of film criticism Film Comment: “The Birth of a Nation is indeed a hair-raising experience, and its moments of visual poetry, as stirring as ever, are as close to its many truly repugnant passages as teeth are to lips … Does that oblige us to pretend that the film wasn’t a beacon for every director of Ford’s generation and beyond, for feat that we might appear racist by doing otherwise? … [Griffith made] not a piece of propaganda but a powerfully dynamic and romantic rendering of the ‘old South’. … That’s the thorny, unwelcome, complicated truth. The question is, how do we live with it?”

A poster from an early re-release, showing John Wilkes Booth leaping from the President's box

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