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The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation Ė 1915, D.W. Griffith

The Birth of a Nation is very much a product of its time. This has led many people to overlook its greatness. In the year 2007, it is admittedly difficult to dismiss the fierce racism of this picture and suck in all of its brilliant innovation instead. In order to fully appreciate what D.W. Griffith contributed to the art of filmmaking, thatís what we have to do.

This is an in-depth film about the Civil War, and, despite the somewhat warped perspective, itís very informative. It examines Lincolnís assassination, reasons behind the war itself, and the development of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan is absolutely glorified in this film Ė watching them riding in to save the innocent white victims from face-painted ďblackĒ extras is an unsettling sight indeed.

I choose to look at the format instead of the content here, because thatís really all one can do in order to appreciate its groundbreaking effect on cinema. Griffith was exploring motion, scope and composition. Some of the more epic scenes in this film are absolutely thrilling; the ambition and the sheer size of it all is really amazing when taking into account that it was just the beginning of an art form.

Despite its epic grandeur and outstanding directorial brilliance, it is a close-minded film, and thatís why itís so easily brushed aside as being a ďpiece of its timeĒ. We canít pretend that 1915 wasnít a prejudiced time, however. Griffith wasnít the only one who viewed African Americans as violent, sex-crazed animals. Tragically, this was the general mentality of the period, as history has proven.

What Griffith did differently was direct a stunning, landmark silent epicÖ itís approximately three hours long, and itís still a riveting spectacle for cinephiles to behold. In many ways, D.W. Griffith could have influenced such highly regarded modern directors as Terrence Malick. He did, after all, build a skeleton of the picture in his mind, and shot the entirety of it without a written script. Thatís gutsy direction, no matter what decade is being referred to.

I will never come to agree or even try to understand the despicable act of racism, but I will always admire and even love this movie. I donít think itís a stretch to call it one of the greatest films ever madeÖ without having some sort of roots, we would never have been given Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Vertigo or Raging Bull.

This is a movie that demands objectivity from modern-day audiences, and I was willing to provide that. What I was given in return was one of the most satisfying viewing experiences Iíve ever had. This is a glorious landmark, and to allow its vision to be marred by the fact that itís a typical product of 1915 would be a shame. Itís a must-see for anyone interested in the history of direction, cinematography or movies in general.

Iíll say itÖ The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece.