When I started this year, it was my intention to map out a series of 12 articles on the release of D.W. Griffith’s nationalist epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Each would cover a different aspect of the film and the whole would be a cohesive essay on the movie. Because of the claimed importance of the movie, it seemed like dedicating the whole year to its study was justified
Having reached August, however, I don’t find that I have all that much more to say about it. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned so far this year:
- I don’t much care for the movie, either in terms of content or artistry.
- It was a runaway smash hit and was praised to the sky at the time, by filmgoers, by critics, and by other directors.
- Film historians have credited it with all kinds of amazing innovations, most of which had been developed much earlier, and will bend over backward to defend its content, ignoring flagrant racism with lame excuses like “that’s how things were then,” or, perhaps worse, will deliberately cover up its actual message.
- Its release and distribution is directly linked to the rise of the second Klan in America.
- D.W. Griffith agreed with its message and either couldn’t understand or refused to believe that it promoted divisiveness and hate in the country.
- He was a good, perhaps great director, but not the superhero he gets made out to be.
- He is consistently credited with innovations (like the close-up, the fade-out, etc) that others did first and he appears to have accepted that credit while alive, either deliberately or mistakenly muddying the historical record.
- His best work, and certainly his most innovative/original, was done while working in short format at Biograph. He never seems to have learned how to tell longer stories well, even though he desperately wanted to the whole time.
- His most important contributions seem to have been in the field of editing, specifically in terms of showing simultaneous action across space. He was not the first to do this, either, however he did develop techniques that made it far more effective. In the best examples, such as “An Unseen Enemy,” cross-cutting makes the whole story work.
There’s just one more piece to all of this I want to talk about, and it’s the hardest one for me to approach: the question of censorship. I’m a librarian, and I’m therefore professionally dedicated to combating censorship in all forms. Even apart from that, I’ve always been one to fall on the side of “freedom of speech at any cost.” Certainly I would not want to see it become illegal or impossible for people to see “The Birth of a Nation” today – there’s too much to be learned from it. Honestly, I think if more people saw it, we’d have a better chance of getting a re-evaluation of its historical significance and meaning.
But, what about back then? The NAACP fought hard battles to keep the movie from opening in various cities, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so. If they hadn’t spoken up, there would be no evidence that, yes, in fact people at that time did find this movie offensive, and their wishes were conveniently ignored. The “it was just that way back then” narrative would succeed. How else could they have made their point known except by trying to censor it? They could have (and did) try the route of “counter-speech,” making their own movies to show the value and worth of African Americans, or correcting the record on the Civil War. But, none of them even came close to capturing the popular imagination the way “Birth of a Nation” did. It’s easy to talk about counter-speech being the best way to fight hate speech, but the reality is that you don’t just make a blockbuster because you happen have the moral high ground or the truth on your side. It takes money, professional connections, artistic skills and distribution infrastructure, which are not easy to come by. In the end, the NAACP lost most of its battles, or won them technically, but still were unable to enforce their wins. “Birth of a Nation” was released all over the country, but not without a fight, and that fight remains part of the historical record.
Am I saying that the world would be a better place if “Birth of a Nation” had not been released, or had been restricted to a clandestine release? I don’t think so. It would have been nice if the 20s KKK had not had access to such a powerful recruiting tool, but there probably wasn’t any way to stop that. The fact that the movie was released, and that it became such a runaway hit that nearly everyone in film agreed it was brilliant for generations is, in fact, an important reflection of the times. I’m grateful to the NAACP, not because they wanted to suppress speech, but because they used their campaign to remind Americans then and now that there was more than one side to the story. Even a campaign for censorship is itself a form of speech, and deserves to be listened to as much for what it says as for what it tries to stop others from saying.
What disappoints me about modern historians and classic film fans is that they simply shrug off these complexities and accept the dominant narrative as the only one. “Classic” movies in America are generally defined as being those made during the period when the fewest non-white people were on the screen, and those that were there had the most stereotyped roles. This is something that needs to be challenged. Enjoying or studying old movies shouldn’t entail accepting the ideology of the period in which they were made without question. It’s possible for Griffith to have been both an innovator and a racist. The world is a complicated place, and understanding it requires a willingness to be honest about your evidence, and keep asking new questions, and, most of all, being ready to change your mind.
That’s all I have to say about this movie for now. The last question, how I’m going to handle it in terms of the “Century Awards,” I leave for next month.