Today marks a raw and uncomfortable anniversary in film history: One hundred years ago, D.W. Griffith’s highly fictionalized history of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, “The Birth of a Nation,” made its national debut. And while I understand the impulse to treat the movie as a distasteful relic of an earlier time, a racist narrative that Hollywood ought to have surpassed long ago, I also think everyone ought to watch it.
As Armond White wrote in National Review last month, “The best thing about ‘The Birth’ is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea ‘Intolerance’ (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist.”
I would go further and say that you can’t quite understand the full power of Griffith’s bigotry unless you acknowledge the scale of his talent on display in “The Birth of a Nation.” It doesn’t excuse him in the slightest to talk about how he created a group of tremendously memorable white characters but failed to extend that same sensitivity and sense of perception to black ones, or to look at how he staged battle sequences that hold up 100 years later but couldn’t imagine that everyday African American life consisted of more than bowing, scraping and vigorous dancing.
If Griffith was a minor artist who succumbed to garden-variety racism, then “The Birth of a Nation” might not stalk our cultural history with such persistence. But “The Birth of a Nation” continues to compel and trouble us precisely because it demonstrates just how much racism can cloud the vision of even a hugely observant director who was capable of eliciting superbly sensitive performances from his cast.
When people talk about why “The Birth of a Nation” has maintained its place in the canon, they usually cite those “revolutionary techniques” White describes. That’s a convenient frame, because it lets observers separate out Griffith’s technical skills from his ideas. And it’s true that the final battle sequence still stands out as tense and unnerving.
But for me, the full extent of Griffith’s craft and limitations is most obvious in the performances he drew out of his actors. We see future Klan founder Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) grow from a feckless young man, eager to go to war despite the concern in his parents’ goodbyes, to a veteran who pauses at the threshold of their house on his homecoming, unsure of what he’ll find inside or how his ragged appearance will be received.
Josephine Crowell is exceptionally good as Ben’s mother, Mrs. Cameron. Griffith undercuts the jauntiness of “Dixie,” which plays as Ben rides off to war, with images of Mrs. Cameron’s anxious face. Later, when Ben is threatened with execution by the Union, Mrs. Cameron begs President Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) to pardon him. Her reaction when he agrees is one of the most human things I’ve ever seen on film: First, she is stunned into incomprehension at her success, then overjoyed to the point of moving to embrace the president, only to be restrained by Elsie (Lillian Gish), who will later become her daughter-in-law.
And Griffith doesn’t only develop his major characters. He has a particular way of making a historical tableau come to life. In the scene where Lincoln sits at a desk flanked by his advisers while signing the order calling for volunteers to fight the secessionist states, the initial staging is so stiff that it almost seems painted. But gradually, the men peel off to different tasks, leaving Lincoln alone with his thoughts. He turns toward the camera, rests his head on his hands and dabs his eyes. He looks toward heaven. It’s an intimate and ambiguous moment.
Later, when Gen. Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) surrenders at Appomattox, Griffith captures him holding on to as much of his dignity as he can, even if the corners of Lee’s mouth betray his dismay. Lee has no choice but to shake hands with the slovenly Gen. Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp), who dashes his signature onto the surrender, shoves his hands into his pockets and smokes a cigar the whole time, and all during a wistful rendition of “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).” You don’t need title cards praising Southern manners and way of life when you can draw this sort of contrast in images.
Given these scenes, Griffith’s inability to put a convincing black character on screen is jarring. Mary Alden, the white actress who plays the biracial housekeeper to a Radical Republican senator, is made up so that her eyes bug and her mouth looks as though it’s in a perpetual grimace. Not content to show us that biracial Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (the white actor George Siegmann, again in blackface) is bad at his job and a tool of Radical Republican policies, Griffith actually shows him abusing a dog. These are not the choices of a filmmaker who knows how to use sophisticated visual grammar.
And Griffith’s choices don’t just make for jarring moments. They consign the movie’s ideas to history even as “The Birth of a Nation” was ushering in film’s future.
In “The Birth of a Nation,” Flora Cameron’s (Mae Marsh) leap to her death to avoid the advances of Gus, a newly free black man is meant to represent white Southern womanhood’s self-defense against the sexual predations of disrespectful African Americans. “For her who had learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death,” reads a title card after Flora’s brother Ben finds her broken body at the bottom of a cliff.
It’s a sequence that has aged particularly badly, and not just because of that retrograde sentiment. Walter Long, the white actor who plays Gus in blackface, makes him out to be a creature rather than a man, skulking along a fence as he pursues Flora and cowering in a gin joint as he tries to hide from the Klan after her death.
If Griffith had been capable of making Gus a real person, struggling to find his place in the New South, and if Griffith had the moral courage to portray pre-bellum relationships between Southern blacks and whites as something other than a paradise, he might have told a more lasting story. A collision between Gus’s attempts to pursue his new freedoms and Flora’s deep-seated but irrational fears of all black male sexuality might have produced a mutual tragedy, rather than reinforcing a grotesque stereotype.
Similarly, when Dr. Cameron is marched before his former slaves in chains at the behest of the villainous Lynch, Griffith misses an opportunity to make the most of an encounter between the old man and a younger woman, played by Madame Sul-Te-Wan.
As movie historian Donald Bogle explains in “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood,” the part was initially bigger. Sul-Te-Wan’s newly wealthy character was snubbed by Mrs. Cameron and spit in the white woman’s face; the scene was cut. Without either that backstory or scenes from before the war that might have given richer and more honest context to the relationship of Sul-Te-Wan’s character with her former owners, the sequence with Dr. Cameron in chains loses the specific charge that might have come from a woman confronting the man who once owned her.
This conflict between Griffith’s artistry and eye for talent played out off-screen as well. As Bogle writes, Griffith mentored Sul-Te-Wan on the set of “The Birth of a Nation,” helped keep her employed and cast her in a bigger role in “Intolerance.” But he also wrote to Winfield Sheehan, who was putting together “The Little Colonel” as a starring vehicle for Shirley Temple, to tell him that “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, calculated to raise the goose-flesh on the back of an audience more than that of a white girl in relations to Negroes.” But if Griffith couldn’t move on from his racial obsessions, Hollywood could: Sheehan cast tap-dancer Bill Robinson, who was known by the stage name Bojangles, in the movie and helped make Robinson’s movie career.
“The Birth of a Nation” begins with “A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE” presented on a title card. “We do not fear censorship,” wrote Griffith, “for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue–the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word–the art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”
Griffith did that in “The Birth of a Nation,” if not in ways he intended. But it’s only by watching the movie that we can really see and understand Griffith’s place in the history he sketches at the start of the film.
In tracing America’s racial history, he shows us hypocritical Puritan preachers lording over shackled slaves and moralistic white abolitionists grandstanding, using stolid black men as props. Griffith, with his grinning, jigging, degenerate facsimiles of African Americans, completes the triptych even more surely than do his thinly sketched Radical Republicans.