So, having completely bashed the picture for its racist content last time out, I’m stuck with a big question: If it’s so terrible, why is it so important? At the risk of creating an essay that’s guilty of the very problems I identified then, I need to talk about two things: technical advances and ballyhoo. To start with the first, let’s be clear: “The Birth of a Nation” was not, as has occasionally been claimed, the first feature film. It was not the first use of tracking shots, pans, or close ups. It was not the first film to edit within scenes or even the most advanced example of editing or lighting or any technique that had ever been used before. However, it was one of the first movies to combine all of this into an emotionally affecting narrative. For many viewers, it may have been their first experience seeing the above techniques used so well or so frequently.
And the second half of the equation partly explains this. D.W. Griffith had poured his life into making this movie (more about him as a person in future installments) had called in every favor he could and was in serious debt. He needed the movie to succeed, and he used every tactic of media exploitation he could to promote it. People heard about the movie long before they saw it. The stage was set for them, the thrills predicted. Moreover, they went in primed for a “new” experience. While “the movies” were seen in the United States (less so in Europe) as being “common” entertainment for poor people and immigrants, Griffith promoted his “photo-play” as an uplifting experience for the middle classes. Legitimate theaters (as opposed to nickelodeons) were rented for premieres in various cities, and ticket prices were as much as $2.00 (as opposed to five cents), making this an exclusive experience but also setting up an expectation that one was really going to “see something.” Orchestras were hired to play the original score. Ushers wore Civil War uniforms. People went wild, cheering and applauding. Of course, the minority of African Americans who saw the movie came away with a different feeling, but for the dominant white majority, this quickly became part of their personal narratives – one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, and an example of how motion pictures could be more than a minor diversion. The result is that more people, and certainly more influential people, saw the movie and were blown away by it.
Side note/tangent: I find that New York City’s Film Forum will be screening the movie tomorrow for its centenary. Wisely, they have invited an African American author to introduce it. I wonder whether it still may draw a few protestors.