Film Reflection: Birth of a Nation (1915)- Griffith’s Controversial Masterpiece Established the Basic Elements of How Technique Accentuated Narrative

American cinema has always been known to be different than other cultural cinema around the world in one essential and highly focused detail and that is the element of story. This is definitely a generalization but most American cinema focuses solely on how a complex or riveting narrative expands the characters, message, and intent of the particular film. Film didn’t necessarily begin with the intent of telling stories since most films were visual experimentations as to what the possibilities of film were. But it was D.W. Griffith who took those visual experiments and added in an incredibly complex, riveting, and controversial story that became his epic film Birth of a Nation. Griffith was by no means unfamiliar with story or acting because he was a playwright and theater director. His unfortunate streak of bad luck in the realm of theater forced him to try and find a more opportune and stable career which inevitably led him to the new frontier of cinema. His talents as a dramatist would influence his work and establish the very essence of film drama, character, and presentation due to his precision and dedication as a storyteller and the first masterful film technician.

Before Birth of a Nation there were some minor films that attempted to tell generic stories through more action than with actual protagonists. In France there was Le Voyage Dans Le Lune, which had a stable linear storyline but was mostly an experimentation of technical method such as using superimpositions, editing sequences, and dissolves. A Trip to the Moon, which is the English translation, would serve as an established basic tool of how films would flow through editing and design through their individual attributes through mise-en-scene. Then in America there was a pre-Griffith film entitled The Great Train Robbery that was greatly sophisticated in the aspect of plot, using visuals to compliment and aid the actions on the screen such as one of the robbers firing directly at the screen manipulating the audience into a feeling of unease as though they are in the line of fire themselves. However, all of the basic technicalities and ability to focus the plot are nothing compared to the epic adventure that can be seen as Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The basic story in Birth of a Nation is an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s overtly racist second book of his trilogy entitled “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” which follows two families, a northern and southern family, from the Civil War to Reconstruction. Establishing the division between North and South with the introduction of the two families set up an incredibly multifaceted tale due to the differences in perspective while at the same time setting up not one but two love stories between the Cameron’s and the Stoneman’s younger generation.

D.W. Griffith mastered this story in all of its elements from love to the struggle of the two perspectives from the North and the South. But most people can’t get involved into this story for obvious reasons considering the horribly racist intentions, though Griffith never seemed to care about the adaptation’s racism. This was especially evident when Griffith went out of his way to address his critics with his next and even more epic masterpiece Intolerance. Instead film scholars look to Birth of a Nation to admire its technical achievements such as having the first tracking shot and even using close ups to accentuate characters emotions. These technical achievements wouldn’t have been possible if not for the collaboration efforts between Griffith and his extremely under-rated camera man Billy Bitzer. Yet what D.W. Griffith used as an art of manipulation isn’t any different than what autuers of the modern day use now to deliver their film’s messages. Griffith was a dramatist and remained such as a filmmaker using the tools to enhance the viewers experience into story and character. He knew how to build tension with editing, juxtapose images for effect, and capture his characters expressions to maintain a consistency in why we are following these selected characters. Some modern cinema goers underestimate the silent period and criticize the apparent over acting, but D.W. Griffith was one of many who knew how to use this limitation to make engaging characters that were more than just people on the screen. This doesn’t mean every character had depth especially since he used many black actors, as well as actors in black face, as racial stereotypes. This is quite shameful, especially in modern retrospect, but considering the adapted source it was one of literary accuracy and artistic choice. While some ignore the story because they don’t agree with its racial implications that is denying the sole purpose of how Griffith used technique to get the audience more engaged into the story. The racism is repugnant but it still doesn’t make you want to turn the film off. Instead this three hour film is a masterwork on how technique is only there to help aid the stories emotional changes.

Before the film opens there is a message that states, “We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, to show the darkside of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue—the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word—that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” This opening plea to open one’s mind to experiencing a fully immersed perspective is a plea that everyone should contemplate. While Birth of a Nation has an incredibly racist presentation it isn’t the films intent to vilify a race of people. Instead the film sets out to use the innovation of cinema to tell a story of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, which will always have racism involved, but is a story that occurred nonetheless. D.W. Griffith had a father who fought on the southern side of the Civil War so his passion to tell a story that reflects his own background shouldn’t be ignored even if understandably detested. Censorship, when it comes to the arts, is detested when it comes to slanders on religion or even politicians but when someone wants to tell a story, one that is already controversial, they insist on embracing it. While Birth of a Nation should be seen for its remarkable achievements in direction, cinematography, and editing, it still remains a film that is a must see because of its divisive and debate instigating subject matter.

Birth of a Nation is considered one of the greatest cinematic achievements in film history, which marked the beginning of American cinema that would eventually focus its delivery on using masterful technique to guide a well established story, which includes intriguing character and a message driven plot. The very fact that this film has been continuously debated ever since its release in 1915 goes to show how powerful its impact has been in the film world. D.W. Griffith reluctantly went into cinema when it seemed as though it was his only option for artistic work, and his dedication to making Birth of a Nation an epic masterpiece turned out to prove that his turn to film was the right decision. It’s a film that is admired and abhorred all at the same time making an immensely intriguing paradox of a movie that will never be forgotten.

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  1. […] short – long film of that period are: Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902),  Ku Klux epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and George Loane Tucker’s equally controversial Traffic in Souls […]

  2. […] short – long film of that period are: Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902),  Ku Klux epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and George Loane Tucker’s equally controversial Traffic in Souls […]

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