The Birth of a Nation It was the first BIG Hollywood movie. It is estimated that five years after its premiere in 1915, more than fifty million Americans had already seen it. Almost half of the population at that time. It is also estimated that it raised about eighteen million dollarswhich is equivalent to about one billion eight hundred million dollars today. With those numbers it would occupy the number seven spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time, just behind Spiderman: No Way Home.
Its director, DW Griffith, is considered one of the most important pioneers in the history of cinema. Before him, cinematography was just a new technology for telling classic stories. Crude plays were recorded on photographic paper. Griffith is responsible for transforming a fairground curiosity into the mass art that is cinema today. He was the first to build a cinematographic standard, that is, a toolbox for creating drama from images. He took the camera and put it in the middle of the action, using closeups, crosscuts, side shots, all mixed into gripping dramatic sequences.
DW Griffith was a great artist and a visionary, but he was also the son of a colonel in the Confederate army. While his grandmother knitted uniforms for the Ku Klux Klan. With The Birth of a Nation he wanted the audience to see the period of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction from his perspective. It turns out that his point of view was deeply racist.
He considered the Confederates to be the true victims of the war. That they had been attacked by the North, and thus the liberation of the slaves was the worst thing that could have happened. Griffith was primarily responsible for giving cinema his power, and then using that power for evil. Illustrating a repulsive fiction and calling it history, in which black people are beasts and that is why the Ku Klux Klan was created to save the virtuous white people.
The plot of The Birth of a Nation
There’s no doubt The Birth of a Nation It is a tremendously epic and ambitious work. It aims to tell the story of two white families, one from the north and one from the south of the United States. From the period before the Civil War, until Reconstruction after the war endeddetailing everything that happens in between
It begins by showing you the first slaves arriving on the continent, telling you that this is what “planted the first seed of disunity.” From there it takes us to a supposed paradise, in which black slaves work the fields, while a love story develops between their “sophisticated” white masters.
Thus we can see that, despite the director’s values and the happy music that accompanies these horrible scenes, the cinematography is revealing enough for us to draw our own conclusions about the true horrors that The Birth of a Nation contains. It wasn’t Griffith’s intention, but the overlay of white flirts strolling through fields where an atrocity is committed in broad daylight speaks for itself.
Abraham Lincoln is the main antagonist in the first part. Since he uses the power of the national government to “oppress” poor southerners who only want to keep their property (their slaves), which is what makes his glamorous lifestyle possible. Although Lincoln is later shown to be a good person, because he pardoned a convicted rebel and planned to show mercy to the defeated enemy (the Southerners), when others in his party wanted to harshly punish the entire region. That is why his murder is tragic for the characters.
We know that the South is defeated and the film shows you this as the worst possible misfortune, because now the blacks are free and thirst for revenge. In The Birth of a Nation Black people are not only evil masterminds who pervert the political system, but lustful creatures whose freedom endangers every white woman.
When free blacks threaten to completely destroy all the values of white society, the saviors appear, the Klansmen. They are the only ones who can stop the corruption of society (i.e. black men marrying white women) through their heroic lynchings.
What caused ‘The Birth of a Nation’
In The Birth of a Nation There is a scene in which a man sees how some white children cover themselves with a white sheet to hide from a group of black children who were about to discover them. Seeing this, the black children seem to believe that what they see is a ghost and run away in terror. A text card appears: “Inspiration.” The film then informs us that “the Ku Klux Klan was the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.”
The Birth of a Nation caused the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. A group that by 1915 had almost disappeared, its membership did not exceed three thousand members. The film’s unprecedented success was the main reason for the Klan to reach one million members, just three years after the film’s release. Returning to terrorize the black population of the southern United States, as if it were a prophesied demon that never ends being defeated.
The film not only caused their rebirth, but directly invented their supposed traditional practices. The original Klan never wore those uniforms that made them look like ghosts on horses, nor did they burn crosses. But Ku Klux Klan number two, founded by William Simmons, inspired by the film, adopted the aesthetic created by DW Griffith.
Harvard University researcher Desmond Ang demonstrated the poisonous effects it had The Birth of a Nation in American society. He found that, on average, the counties in which the film was shown during its five-year national tour were five times more likely to have a lynching or race riot. and three times more likely to have a Ku Klux Klan unit.
There was a massive call to censor The Birth of a Nation in several states of the United States. Since, even for its time, the film was deeply racist. Those efforts were not useless, but Griffith managed to use the controversy to make his film even more attractive to the audience. He made advertisements defending his artistic freedom and warned everyone to rush to see the film before it was banned..
Time magazine film critic James Agee said on the occasion of DW Griffith’s death in 1948:
“Charlie Chaplin said ‘The whole industry owes its existence to him.’ Yet in his later years he could not find work in the city he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, aquiline man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he would sit drinking in silence, his sharp eyes scanning the room for familiar faces, most of them long absent now. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there could never be anyone like him.”
The Birth of a Nation It is available on YouTube.