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Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation

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D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation

In terms of both its filmic and political history, it is interesting to note that trailblazing independent director D.W. Griffith's landmark Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation, is primarily an anti-war film. It opens with a title card proclaiming that "If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain." Pretty strong words from a man many consider a blatant racist and whose name and legacy and have been diminshed by those who refuse to see past the personal to the professional.

Griffith is credited with giving us "the language of cinema" and The Birth of a Nation was the first feature-length film of the silent era, and just like Citizen Kane in later years, every that came after (including Kane, of course) owes its existence to this film.

Griffith has a remarkable (if remarkably unsubtle) way of visualizing emotions through film -- like how a fight that breaks out between a kitten and a puppy belonging to the same family foreshadows later brother-against-brother "Hostilities." At the same time, having the major black characters played by white actors in blackface guarantees stereotypes will be perpetuated -- never mind the inclusion of an obvious "Mammy" character (the pro-Southern stance of The Birth of a Nation is pretty much given away by titles like "The Confederates to the Rescue").

Despite his prejudices, Griffith does aim for historical realism along with his drama. His Abraham Lincoln is a dead ringer, and the set for Lincoln's office was taken directly from descriptions found in a history text. And Griffith does a terrific job of illustrating the crescendo of tension as the possibility of war looms over the tranquil lives of his protagonists. And he is especially effective at dramatizing the immediacy of militiamen invading the homes of local residents. A young girl cannot hide her giddiness at all the excitement -- war on the steps, gunfire in the parlor -- while her sister is deathly afraid.

It is, of course, impossible to watch a film about which so much has been written with a naïve eye (I found myself looking for things to be offended by), but the importance of The Birth of a Nation to film history requires at least one full viewing -- more if you want to follow what's going on in the dense script (the titles cards are nearly always filled to brimming with relevant information). What you get out of it depends on what you bring to the experience. Your best bet is to come with an open mind and prepare to be educated about a time in history when things were simply different than they are now, and pay attention to a true maverick filmmaker who, whatever he had to say, was able to make the films that he wanted to make.

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