It would be very understandable for a student in his early 20’s in 2013 to be reluctant at the idea to watch a black and white, soundless 190 minutes 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation is.
But the boundless curiosity that makes who I am just dragged me into it and after hearing about it for the first time approximately 8 years ago, I finally got to watch it and understand why it is so big in the history of early cinema.
Griffith’s work on the film is revolutionary, more than the film itself I would say, especially if we take “evolution towards something better” as a definition of revolutionary, which in this case wouldn’t really apply to the story but then, there are different angles in which we could analyse it.
Greatly responsible in the fact that this film has been almost a century long “popular” probably firstable is its ability to represent a wide range of genres and registers in it. You will rarely see films generating such a variety of feelings and thoughts ; with such a strong ambiguity thus as an overall reaction.In 3 hours times, there are quite a lot of things to pick up on.
If there is a reason why The Birth of a Nation has marked a lot of spirits, the racism which has been perceived from it is a great one. Insofar as the white characters are often depicted as victims with the main political figure representing the blacks in the second part of the film (in the character of Silas Lynch) turning out not to be a very lovely person as he is first presented ; we can understand the negative reactions it provoked.
I personally don’t believe this film to be worth such strong reactions for it is first able a film ; thus a product a lot of people unfortunately don’t take enough distance from as consumers, especially at this period of time, in the fist years of this new medium. A product which on the other hand boasts about for making an account of some very important historical fact presented in documentary like sequences, thus not completely offering what would be seen as a single and personal vision of things. But then again, a few things are to discuss…
In a very positive note, we can very openly say that The Birth of a Nation offers a countless number of new and innovative techniques explaining why apart from all the turmoil it may have provoked, it still remains a landmark in the history of cinema especially from a technical point of view. This blessing in disguise it may appear to be, features the impressive introduction of no fewer than the following ; dramatic close-ups, tracking shots, parallel action sequences (which you can’t miss the story involving many characters located on opposite sides of the United States (here north and south, for the secession wars The Birth of a Nation represents occurred between these), cross-cutting, with the editing techniques also including the realisation of the first orchestral score subsequently added (more precisely played during the projection like it was the case in these times, for direct sound from the picture would arrive another 12 years later).
Beyond the reasons given earlier, the film’s racist elements mainly play on the stereotypes about black people and the fact the in the war opposing North to South, only the recently formed Ku Klux Klan seem to be able to restore order. This is all however attenuated so that we never fall into none of the extremes ; with for instance the audacious introduction of a love story between two characters of opposite sides connected to other big figures fighting against each other, a bit like in Romeo and Juliet ; evoking the idea that nothing’s completely what it seems (not to use another obvious expression that would appear here as a very bad game with words).
So in the end, The Birth of a Nation can be taken like a representation of a certain reality like a lot of people have perceived it and still do, for many. The documentary from sequences can however be very tricky and you really have to know your history lessons to understand the light under which these facts are interpreted and represented to get the positions of D. W. Griffith which are his own and maybe shared by an important part of his audience. But no matter how negative the representation and the stories can be, it really is because of the technical progresses for cinema that is represents and maybe even political (racial reasons still being a source of conflicts at the results period in the United States) that this film is a pillar of the history of cinema, a medium in which all bends can be overtly shown , if we are tolerant enough to accept it.