Imagine a movie where the protagonist is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, with the villains being incompetent, barefooted, drunk black men that must be defeated. Pretty distasteful, right?
Well, this is the plot of the 1915 movie “The Birth of A Nation,” critically acclaimed then and now and credited as the first Hollywood blockbuster of all time. The movie was based on the novel “The Clansmen” by Thomas Dixon, who claimed the purpose of the book was “to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.” It was the first movie to ever be shown in the White House. The propaganda was so powerful, it transformed the KKK into heroes. The film is even credited by some for the reformation of the KKK in the early 20th century.
With the 104-year anniversary coming up, people are still defending this movie to the ends of the earth, and the reason for that is understandable. The movie was revolutionary in the film industry. It produced some of the first movie stars and showcased previously unheard of movie techniques. The Hollywood Reporter praised “The Birth of a Nation” for its use of “spectacular battlefield panoramas, operatic melodrama, thrilling chase scenes—the full power of cinematic art pulling at their heartstrings and quickening their pulses.” History.com says the film’s director, D.W. Griffith, “popularized countless filmmaking techniques that remain central to the art today,” like close-ups, flashbacks, and fade-ins.
But, in a world where racial tensions are heightened and we’re increasingly aware of political correctness, should this film still be so well-regarded in movie history? What legacy should a movie that revolutionized film, but indirectly increased the death count of black people in America, leave?
Film Analysis professor Nathan Blake from Northeastern University has studied “The Birth of a Nation” for many years. When asked about the relevance of the film, Blake first acknowledged Griffith’s advanced film strategy innovations that defined the Hollywood studio style and the dominant approach to narrative cinema. However, he then pointed out the film’s troubling racial elements. “It illustrates our troubling, racist history, not just of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but of the early 20th-century and beyond,” he said. “It is also relevant today because we continue to see these same stereotypes and tropes of ‘purity’ in contemporary white-supremacist discourse.”
I asked him how his students perceived the film, and he said “Students are generally troubled, and often don’t know how to respond, at least initially. If anything, students are shocked by the film’s blatant racism, its cartoonish stereotypes, and the depiction of the Klan as ‘heroic.’”
On the topic of how the film should be remembered, Blake explained that “Birth of a Nation” will remain an important film to watch and discuss because it was simply a highly influential film. “It illustrates the ways in which cinema can manipulate its audience,” he said. “It is one thing to feel moved by a story in which you might already share its ideology to some degree. But when you see how you are positioned to fear for Flora (Mae Marsh) as she is pursued by the ‘monstrous’ Gus (Walter Long), you begin to see how the narrative, placement of the camera, music, and editing position the viewer to identify with certain characters and perspectives and against others.”
“In other words, its objectionable ideology allows us to see the ways in which such messages are conveyed.”