I don't understand all the praise for The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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I just watched D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, and I'm totally perplexed by the many positive reviews the film has received over the years...Both from those here at MoFo and it even made Roger Ebert's list of Greatest Movies.

I found the movie to be little more than out right propaganda racist material...that re-invents history to blame the north & blacks for the south's problems after the Civil War. According to the film the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes who protect the minority whites from murdering & raping blacks during the Reconstruction period. The only 'good blacks' we see in the film are former slaves who still 'love' their white masters and are beholding to them.

People have called this film racist because white actors in black face appear as African Americans...that alone is not racist, yes it's socially uncomfortable to us in the 21st century, but it's not racist. What is horribly racist is how the black characters in the movie are portrayed as drunken louts who harass, murder and rape whites. IMO The Birth of a Nation clearly sought to brainwash whites, specifically northern whites into believing that the south was the victims and the evil doers were white northern radicals and black agitators and the KKK were 'white knights' in shining armor.

Maybe it's just me but I was sickened to see the KKK riding like heroes and saving the day. I couldn't help but think about how many innocent black people these southern gentlemen beat and lynched in the last century....One of the most shocking scenes and accurate scenes in the movie is: a line of KKK men on horses forcefully stopping black voters from reaching the ballot box. That's something that the southern states have been doing since the end of slavery. The film makes it look like suppression of the black vote was a positive thing, when in fact it's a huge violation of human and civil rights.

The Birth of a Nation was presented at the time as real history. Because the film was ground breaking with it's innovative cinema techniques and was the first 3 hour epic drama anyone had seen, it had major influence on the audience with disastrous results for future race relations.

On top of all this, it was boring! So, did I miss the point of the film? I mean how can people like this thing?



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I'v never seen it but most of the reaction seems akin to Triumph of the Will(which I'v also never seen) admiring its technical achievement whilst abhorring its message.



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Yeah, it's definitely because of the technique but technique only goes so far if it's in service of such a regressive story.

I'd still contend that blackface is inherently racist, though.

(also do I want to tag the user who calls this his #1 movie or should I just let him find the thread on his own)
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I'v never seen it but most of the reaction seems akin to Triumph of the Will(which I'v also never seen) admiring its technical achievement whilst abhorring its message.
I reviewed Triumph of the Will and gave it a
I thought it was a fascinating window back in time, as it's a documentary of the Nuremberg Nazi Party Congress of 1934 poetical rally filmed as that rally happened...So it was like a snap shot in time. The first half is well made and held my interest, some of the speeches became tedious though still interesting to hear the lies that were told to the German population. Personally I don't really feel there's much in common between it and The Birth of a Nation.

Yeah, it's definitely because of the technique but technique only goes so far if it's in service of such a regressive story. I'd still contend that blackface is inherently racist, though.
I would agree that today blackface is racist, but I think the choice of mixing some white actors portraying African Americans along with real black actors was one of economics. I mean there couldn't have been that many skilled black actors back in 1915. But yes, today it's offensive, but I don't think the film aimed to be offensive with black face.

It advanced the medium in a technical and artistic sense.
I read it broke many new records in film making and is credited with making movies a legitimate art form vs the previous view of movies as 1 reel fun diversions. I've liked other of D.W. Griffith movies. I wondered why he would make such a film, and by that I mean what was his thought process? I should look on the internet for actual newpaper interviews with Griffith about that.



Citizen Rules, just curious, what did you like more about Battleship Potemkin than this piece? That is also a huge propaganda piece and known mostly for its innovative technique rather than storyline. And I haven't really seen Birth of Nation, just got bored out of it. Battleship Potemkin, however, I loved - both for the technique and historical purpose - and will be definitely going on my ballot. I'm wondering what you think, though, having seen both.
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Citizen Rules, just curious, what did you like more about Battleship Potemkin than this piece? That is also a huge propaganda piece and known mostly for its innovative technique rather than storyline. And I haven't really seen Birth of Nation, just got bored out of it. Battleship Potemkin, however, I loved - both for the technique and historical purpose - and will be definitely going on my ballot. I'm wondering what you think, though, having seen both.
Good question, I'll try my best to answer.

So to me Battleship Potemkin was visually and story wise compelling and it held my interest. Whilst The Birth of a Nation bored me, both visually (though the DVD wasn't a good copy, so maybe that's partially it). But also as the film was made up of many brief 'historical scenes' there wasn't much story building or character arcs. It was only when Lillian Gish had romantic & dramatic scenes with her southern beau that I was interested in the film.

But the big difference to me is that while Battleship Potemkin is propaganda, it's something I could cheer for...and no way in hell am I cheering for the KKK!...And no, I'm not a communist, but oppressed poor people standing up to the Czarist repressive regimen seemed heroic, while black people being demonized and harassed by the KKK was sickening to me and it's not like the KKK as shown as the bad guys, they are the heroes of the film.

I don't object so much to a film being propagandist, but with The Birth of a Nation it's outright promoting the idea of white supremacy. Had it been examining white supremacy without actively endorsing it and glorifying it, I wouldn't object to the movie. But the film IMO is outright hateful and that's done with a deliberately intention.




But the big difference to me is that while Battleship Potemkin is propaganda, it's something I could cheer for...and no way in hell am I cheering for the KKK!...And no, I'm not a communist, but oppressed poor people standing up to the Czarist repressive regimen seemed heroic, while black people being demonized and harassed by the KKK was sickening to me and it's not like the KKK as shown as the bad guys, they are the heroes of the film.
When you put it like that I feel stupid for even asking the question

Yep, I guess I'd agree with everything you said, without really even seeing Birth of a Nation. I just liked the way Battleship Potemkin humanized it, whether or not Russia would fall into the hands of Stalin years after the events of the film took place.



I couldn’t watch The Birth of a Nation even if you paid me.
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This and Potemkin were boring, but I finished the latter. I want to see "Birth of a Nation" when I have almost nothing left to see. I tried once, the VHS was old and grainy, and I'm not a fan of silent movies anyway, so I might as well something else.



I actually enjoyed The Birth of a Nation. You can't take it seriously, because if it's views, but it's one of those movies that's a guilty pleasure, like so bad that it's entertaining, if anyone else sees it that way?



I took a film history class by a self-professed Nazi in the 1990's. When we viewed it in class I considered only for its historical significance. Now that I know more about the professor and his views, he probably thought he was spreading the word. He had a picture of his mother and father at their wedding in full Nazi SS attire.


100 Years Later, What's The Legacy Of 'Birth Of A Nation'?


NPR Staff








Actors dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia for scenes in 1915's The Birth of a Nation.


Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

One hundred years ago Sunday, the nascent film industry premiered what would go on to be its first blockbuster: The Birth of a Nation.
As the house lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up the score, a message from director D.W. Griffith flickered on the screen: "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today."
But its effects on race relations were devastating, and reverberations are still felt to this day.
Epic Film, Embedded Bigotry
The Birth of a Nation is three hours of racist propaganda — starting with the Civil War and ending with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the South from black rule during the Reconstruction era.
"[Griffith] portrayed the emancipated slaves as heathens, as unworthy of being free, as uncivilized, as primarily concerned with passing laws so they could marry white women and prey on them," Dick Lehr, author of The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America's Civil War, tells NPR's Arun Rath.
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At the time, much of the storyline was accepted as historically accurate.
"Griffith thought he was, in a way, reporting history about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and it was widely accepted at the time — which has been completely debunked since — that Reconstruction was a disaster ... and that former slaves were some kind of lower form of life," Lehr says.
"That was the embedded, bigoted, racist state of mind of the time."
Griffith, looking at what he saw as history, was motivated by artistic ambition, Lehr says.
"He wanted to do something very big," says Lehr. "He was a man of the South from Kentucky. His father had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. What bigger story to tell as a breakout, epic film than the story of America's Civil War and its aftermath?"
Griffith's understanding of the past was based on a twisted account, and today it's easy to imagine that a movie like his would flop and be forgotten. But The Birth of a Nation, far from falling into oblivion, led to the birth of Hollywood.
Instant Praise And Protests
Lehr says the film was the Avatar or Star Wars of 1915: It was a runaway hit.
After the first screening in Los Angeles, the film got a big thumbs-up. "The critics were raving. People were on their feet cheering at the climax of the film, when the Klan is seen as a healing force — restoring order to the chaos of the South during Reconstruction," Lehr says. "They were in awe of seeing for the first time a feature film of this length. There's one critic [who] said, 'The worst thing about The Birth of a Nation is how good it is.' "
"There's one critic [who] said, 'The worst thing about "The Birth of a Nation" is how good it is.' "

Author Dick Lehr

The film's initial success drowned out the voices of those who tried to protest. The civil rights movement was still quite young at the time; the NAACP had just incorporated a few years earlier. So the Los Angeles screenings were successful in spite of the outrage, as were New York City's. It even became the first movie ever to be screened at the White House. Woodrow Wilson reportedly called it "history written in lightning."
But in Boston, newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter organized protests that involved the Boston branch of the NAACP. He organized mass demonstrations where several thousand protesters, mostly black, turned out to say the film was not accurate.
Trotter was arrested at a demonstration in front of a theater where the movie was playing.
"For me, as an author and a researcher reconstructing this great drama," Lehr says, "I kept scratching my head going, 'What year is this?!' This is 1915, but it's so 1960-ish in terms of its protest strategy."
Despite the protests, the Boston screenings did go on as scheduled — but the protesters set a template for other cities to follow.
After Boston, theater owners in other towns demanded significant edits to the film before they'd screen it; in other places, it was banned outright.
New Eras, New Audiences
Long after 1915, the silent film continued to find audiences.
Immediately after the film's release, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a surge in membership, and it continued to use the film as a recruiting tool for decades after that.
As a young journalist in the late 1970s, Lehr infiltrated the local Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for a story. He met their leader at the time, David Duke, who was there to recruit the next wave of Klansmen.
"[Duke's] idea of a meeting was to show this film, in which he stood there narrating it and adding his own very racist spin on events. And that's when it hit me: the real propaganda value for the Klan, not only way back when but here it was, like, six, seven decades later," says Lehr.
And while civil rights leaders in 1915 tried to get the film banned entirely, The Birth of a Nation is still taught in film schools. For all its repulsive imagery, the film stands as a massive leap in cinema.
"He did things that hadn't been done before in terms of close-up, zooming the camera in on faces, crosscutting in dramatic Civil War battle scenes, not just taking a single, static shot — all of which heightened the power, the impact, the drama, the emotion," Lehr says.
Griffith was also the first to host test screenings of his works-in-progress. And he moved his filmmaking operation from the East Coast to Southern California to take advantage of its routinely pleasant weather. The rest of the industry would later follow suit, and Hollywood — at least as a metonym — was born.
Teaching The Film Today
Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, says he rarely brings up the film in his classes, and he won't ever screen it in his classroom.
"You can't separate — at least, I don't agree to separate — the technological prowess from the political baggage."

USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Todd Boyd

"It's really sort of the foundation of modern cinema, I think, in every sense. So historically it's important in that regard, but you can't separate — at least, I don't agree to separate — the technological prowess from the political baggage," says Boyd, who is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC.
Boyd says that if students want to see clips, there are plenty online. But he's not calling on other educators to ban the film, too. After all, he says, it's important for college students to be exposed to all kinds of information, including uncomfortable ideas.
"I just think the way it's taught is more important than the fact that it's taught," says Boyd. "If you talk about it only as technological achievement and the brilliance of D.W. Griffith, then I think this is unfortunate. If you talk about it as representative of racism and white supremacy and America's history in this regard, then I think that's very different."
No matter how responsibly the film is taught, Boyd has a theory about the film's legacy — even a century after its first screening.
"If you plant seeds, what grows from those seeds is going to be based on what you planted. So if you're trying to grow marijuana, you probably shouldn't plant tomatoes. Birth of a Nation is a film that represents racism," Boyd says.
"It is at the foundation of what would become Hollywood. So if this is at the root, then it shouldn't be a surprise when in the last few weeks, there have been discussions about the lack of people of color being nominated for the Oscars. In my mind, this is very much a branch that grew out of the tree that was Birth of a Nation."


Evidently it was a large step in moving from film shorts to a full length film that had actual cinematography on a primitive scale. I think the fuss is on its technical achievements. The article points out that the content reflected the attitude of many at the time. I don't believe in censorship, and it is hard for me to believe that the film would convince anybody to change their views on race.I kinda think of it as a cheerleader film for those who have a particular (in my view bad) view on race. I would not be surprised to see it make a come back in some places in the next few years.



When you put it like that I feel stupid for even asking the question

Yep, I guess I'd agree with everything you said, without really even seeing Birth of a Nation...
There's no stupid questions I'm glad to see some conversation here. So many threads just seem to have people listing their favorite this or favorite that, without ever really talking to each other, so questions are good! BTW I do think you should watch Birth of a Nation if you ever get the chance, it is an important film.

I couldn’t watch The Birth of a Nation even if you paid me.
Have you ever seen a silent film? Good silent films are like a cross between watching a sound movie and reading a book. I find a silent film holds my attention better than most modern films. But silent films aren't something that's going to work for someone who's texting or multi tasking while watching it. They do take full concentration to get into the film. I do think silent films are rewarding in a way that sound films aren't.

This and Potemkin were boring, but I finished the latter. I want to see "Birth of a Nation" when I have almost nothing left to see...
There's a lot of movies out there, if anything it saddens me that I can't begin to watch them all.

I actually enjoyed The Birth of a Nation. You can't take it seriously, because if it's views, but it's one of those movies that's a guilty pleasure, like so bad that it's entertaining, if anyone else sees it that way?
Well each to his own of course...but I have to say I could never see it as so bad it's good. First off it is well made. Second it was intended to be very serious and as soon as it was released riots and protest broke out. The NAACP sought to ban the movie and D.W. Griffith took a lot of heat because of it. Plan Nine From Outer Space, it's not.



Yes it's definitely much better made than Plan 9 From Outer Space, but there moments in it throughout, that you can't help but laugh at I feel.

For example, the scene where the black man, now free, wants to protest his love for a white woman he knows, and the white woman is so disturbed by this that she threatens to jump off a cliff and kill herself if he continues to come closer to her. He tries to convince her not to, and she does therefore. I thought it was unintentionally ridiculous for what was suppose to be a serious moment, that drives the plot.

Or just the fact that you have what seems to be every black person in the country in the movie, trying to attempt a coup is just ridiculous as well.