Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Birth of a Nation- A Review of Condemnation

The film Birth of a Nation is acclaimed as one of the 100 best Hollywood films ever produced. It was produced by D W Griffith in 1915. With great difficulty and months of search, I finally got hold of a DVD of the film. As I watched the film, I felt revulsion and anguish at the unadulterated racism, portraying the Afro-Americans as lustful rapists and looters and glorifying the Ku Klux Clan.

Birth of a Nation is an adaption of Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman. Technically, the film is a masterpiece considering it was produced in 1915. Griffith’s editing is flawless and his use of camera was very novel. He has alternated close-ups and long-shots from varying camera angles and use of frames gives the film a classic touch. It is a silent film. The film is a testimony to Griffith’s genius, but alas a diabolical genius. Like Nazis, who have used films to raise the anti-semitic feelings of dominant population resulting ultimately in genocide, Griffith too tries to raise the passions of Southerners against the Blacks.

The film begins with the tale of Phil and Tod Stoneman of Pennsylvania who are visiting their school friends, the Camerons of Piedmont, South Carolina. A love affair develops between the Stonemans and the Cameron’s sisters. These love affairs are interrupted by the Civil War. The Camerons boys join the Confederate army while the Stoneman boys join the Union army. It is during the war that the younger Camerons and Tod Stoneman are killed. After the war, the father of the Stoneman’s is elected to Congress and “agitates for the punishment of the South.”
The Reconstruction period starts. From here on Griffith portrays the Negro characters as hooligans, looters and rapists. He tries to convince his audience that the blacks who outnumber the whites in Carolina prevent whites from voting and capture the legislature. The entire portrayal of the Reconstruction days showed the Negro when freed from white domination, as arrogant, lustful, and villainous. Negro Congressmen were pictured drinking heavily, sleeping in Congress with bare feet upon the desks, or lustfully ogling white women. But, in addition to this general attack on the recently freed Negro, The Birth of a Nation depicts in the most graphic terms the individual threat that freed Negro men posed to the South--white women! Griffith’s creation of the character of Gus, the freed Negro servant of the Camerons as a black skinned renegade who pursues Southern women for sexual purposes, represents the arch stereotype of the Negro man as “sexual monster.” These scenes were constructed to justify the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Through many twists and turns, the film finally reaches its climax when the Klan metes out justice to the Negro militia.
Griffith will be remembered for long as a person who took his Southern Prejudices to a film and tried to instigate the Whites against Blacks.


shishir said...

very nice review. for starters, let me congrtulate you for managing to get a copy of this movies considered a cinematic classic. It was perhaps the first movie epic. It was also perhaps the first time a director was using all possible camera shot techniques: the disolves, the fades, the close up, especialy close ups of actors facial expressions! and this in 1915!

Having said that, you are right about the bigoted view that the director held. there were race riots and mob lynching of black people after the movie had been released. And the last shot of the ride of the clansmen inspired many to join the KKK.

Sridhar said...

Enjoyed this piece for the crafting of English and the good critique it presents. I am sure this film moved you and your writing did move me although I have never seen this film myself!

balaji said...


i knew griffith as the 'great' film maker, but not his ideology;)

do u have the dvd still with you? (saying, can i borrow?)

and i guess you cd visit desicritics.org., am sure y'd have interesting times with the comments and bigotry that spans the good IT folks.

Ramana said...

Doc, I have the DVD. I will pass it on to you.