DW Griffith's Infamous Epic
April 6, 2008 2:53 AM   Subscribe

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation [previously] is now viewable in its entirety at YouTube. Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Or at Internet Archive, if you prefer.
posted by flapjax at midnite (25 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, thanks flap--always wanted to watch this.
posted by hadjiboy at 3:09 AM on April 6, 2008

I downloaded this from the Archive a while ago, but I still haven't watched it. I know Griffith invented many of the film techniques we now take for granted as having always existed with this film and it's one of the most important landmarks in film history, but I'm not sure I can enjoy it knowing that its horrible racism single-handedly prompted the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which paved the way for the modern Aryan Nations and WAR and the like. On the other hand, I've seen Der Ewige Jude, and the antisemitism in that is so over-the-top that it's comical (at one point, a photo of Einstein is shown, and the voiceover says "The relativity Jew Einstein masked his hatred of Germany with his obscure pseudo-science") if you don't take into account its real-life consequences. Maybe viewed that way it won't be so bad, since apparently the racism in Birth Of A Nation is equally over-the-top.

I also have Intolerance, which I have watched, which is an awesome film. Griffith really was amazing, especially considering the primitive conditions he worked in.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:28 AM on April 6, 2008

Interestingly, director John W. Noble, in 1918, produced and directed The Birth of a Race [the first 10 minutes of the film], offering a decidedly different viewpoint from Griffith's. Read about it here at Wikipedia.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:41 AM on April 6, 2008

Sometimes, a piece of shit creates art. Such is Griffith's affect on Eisenstein.
posted by basicchannel at 3:42 AM on April 6, 2008

a decidedly different viewpoint from Griffith's

It's not really fair to say it was entirely Griffith's viewpoint: it was pretty much a straight adaptation of Thomas F. Dixon's novel/play The Clansman. People didn't really realize the power of film to influence people then, and Griffith was remorseful about Birth Of A Nation. As self-imposed penance, he made Intolerance, which was unsuccessful and basically tanked his career.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:54 AM on April 6, 2008

One other link for "The Birth of a Race": the imdb page. The user comment there is interesting.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:14 AM on April 6, 2008

I hear you, but you really shouldn't have such qualms about watching it. Viewing the film doesn't lend support or legitimacy to the clan anymore than viewing Triumph of the Will supports Nazism. The merits of the art itself can, at least for me, be separated by its real-world consequences.

And it really is an astounding film, technically. I was blown away when I saw it by how advanced it seemed, especially considering how old it was. It's like 3 hours long but you won't be bored for a minute. I just couldn't get over how modern it seemed; Griffith was a genius. Having said that, here's the deal with the racism: the movie is divided into two halves. The first half introduces the two main families of the story, and is basically a mini-history of the events leading up to the Civil War, and the war itself (with some fantastic battle scenes). Knowing the film's reputation, this part is fairly innocuous, as its main point is mostly about state's rights, a position I disagree with but it's not shockingly offensive. It's the second part that might bother you, because that's when Griffith turns the racism to 11. The main premise is that Northern Whites came in after the war and brutally oppressed the Southern Whites and elevated blacks above them. The Southern whites, a poor, disenfranchised minority, suffer as best they can, though the blacks the Northerners put in charge naturally devolve into lawless anarchy driven by their lust for white women. However, a few brave souls rise up to form the KKK and ride in to save their suffering Southern white brethren. Yeah, it's pretty bad. Even so, with all its idiocy in content, it's still an amazing film well worth watching.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:38 AM on April 6, 2008

I've had the same issues about watching this film as DecemberBoy. I'm really just not comfortable watching it. However, I have seen DJ Spooky's interpolation of the film, which he mixes with jazz. He was at MOCA about a year or two ago. Watching him mix the film and the music live on two computers was almost as interesting as watching the film.
posted by anansi at 7:11 AM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's a movie I've always wanted to see but didn't rush to because of the subject matter, but any clip I've seen has been pretty amazing. Thanks for posting this.

anansi - that DJ Spooky looks like it was very cool!
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:18 AM on April 6, 2008

Sangermaine left out the best part: the surprise ending. At the very end of the film, Christ himself appears to benevolently bless the triumphant Klansmen. Seriously.

I had a lot of difficulty being offended by this South Park level of absurdity. And though the film is so amazingly ahead of its time, it does drag in some parts (eg, the horsemen riding to the rescue for what feels like half an hour).

That said, it's a real eye-opener as to the racism of yesteryear and how far we've come. Yes, there's a hell of a lot of racism today, but many things have gotten better. For example, death is no longer seen as a preferable alternative to having sex with a black man.
posted by Ndwright at 8:20 AM on April 6, 2008

Decemberboy Re: the fact that it was a faithful adaptation of "The Clansman". Yes, it was. But why does that excuse Griffith? He *chose* to make a movie out of a book of racist propaganda, why should he be excused simply because he didn't write the book? He made the movie of his own free will didn't he?

As far as watching it today goes, I think we should. Its always important to know history, especially history as it applies to a continuing social problem.

Of course, that assumes that to a modern movie watching audience its watchable, and wow is that not watchable. Nevermind the political message, its just plain bad cinema and a monument to how far (and fast) the art of filmmaking progressed. Metropolis was made only 12 years later, and while its still all but unwatchable by modern standards it is so vastly better than Birth of a Nation that its astonishing.

I boldly set out to watch Birth of a Nation, on the premise that its historically important, and I didn't get past the first ten minutes... I quit after the interminable "it takes you idiots three minutes to read a 30 word letter" scene was followed by the "let's show a curtain with the female lead standing behind it taking one step forward, then back, the forward, then back, until the audience comits suicide from boredom" scene. I just didn't have the whatittakes to suffer through that.
posted by sotonohito at 9:27 AM on April 6, 2008

I've come to love silent movies in recent years, but in the single time I've watched Birth of a Nation I was bored nearly to tears by it, like sotonohito. I see how it developed some interesting film language that we take for granted now, but the reason I'm impatient with it is exactly that--we take it for granted that when we see a shot of a person looking intently at something out of frame, and then a shot of a letter being held in a hand, then that person is reading the letter. So the reason why Griffith takes so much time to get points like that across can elude the modern viewer.

For fans of the Lord of the Rings movies, though, watching Griffith (as well as Eisenstein, mentioned by basicchannel above) is worthwhile, as Peter Jackson seems to have been strongly influenced by both those directors (or rips off elements of their composition and editing, depending on how charitable you want to be). In particular, compare the climactic scene in which the Klansmen come to the rescue in Birth of a Nation to the depiction of the Riders of Rohan in the final act of The Two Towers.
posted by Prospero at 9:58 AM on April 6, 2008

Of course, that assumes that to a modern movie watching audience its watchable, and wow is that not watchable. Nevermind the political message, its just plain bad cinema and a monument to how far (and fast) the art of filmmaking progressed. Metropolis was made only 12 years later, and while its still all but unwatchable by modern standards it is so vastly better than Birth of a Nation that its astonishing.

I think this is the wrong stance to take with silent cinema -- in one sentence you seem to wipe the tables with both Griffith and Lang, relegating them to a primitive filmmaking world (a view that silent cinema is often subject to).

But why view silent cinema as the onset of progress? Of course it is easy to view the history of film, being that its very nature lays in technical achievement and advancement, as a step 1 to step 2 to step 3 medium in which everything is only seen from the modern view. But I don't think this is the correct approach -- this is what causes silent cinema (a monumental art among itself) to be so easily dismissed and chided (filmmakers wouldn't do THAT today!).

Its a hard line to straddle -- to view film as a sort of progress, but to also view the own merits of each filmmaking stage. I guess I - and many may disagree with me - find it wrong to judge a film's artistic merit based purely on Progress, fully on the time and under the conditions it was made. These certainly enter the equation, but it shouldn't be everything.

Sotonohito, I don't think you were categorizing all of silent cinema in this way. I just want silent cinema to get its due. Griffith, Lang, Murnau, Ford, the French Impressionists, Chaplin, Keaton -- these are all artists (to a degree... Ford would forever consider himself just a craftsman) who worked brilliantly within the silent film medium. Because silent film really is another art. There are different rules, different precepts. And it was a time of complete experimentation. They were essentially creating a language from scratch. This alone deserves our respect.

The introduction of sound forever changed the aesthetic and technical nature of film. So to watch silent cinema from a purely modern perspective seems a little odd to me.
posted by MPnonot3 at 10:25 AM on April 6, 2008

I never made the Rohan connection, thanks for pointing that out. Jackson rips off of a lot of classic films in Lord of the Rings. In Two Towers, I believe, the scene where Saruman addresses the orcish hordes is almost identical to the Nuremburg rally in The Triumph of Will (unlike George Lucas, at least Jackson was applying this mass-gathering triumphalism to the bad guys. It was quite a shock to my teenaged brain to learn that the awards procession at the end of the first Star Wars film was largely inspired by a Nazi propaganda film).
posted by Ndwright at 10:34 AM on April 6, 2008

The Birth of a Nation on YouTube... I, for one, expect very civil, emotionally mature, and intellectual comments discussing its contribution to cinema-as-we-know-it and its place within the context of our much more tolerant, modern society.

posted by defenestration at 10:51 AM on April 6, 2008

to which I can but add one of my favorite mantras:

we see things not as They are but as We are
posted by Postroad at 11:01 AM on April 6, 2008

Guy Debord's suggestion: "Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of the cinema because of its wealth of innovations. On the other hand, it is a racist film and therefore absolutely does not merit being shown in its present form. But its total prohibition could be seen as regrettable from the point of view of the secondary, but potentially worthier, domain of the cinema. It would be better to detourn it as a whole, without necessarily even altering the montage, by adding a soundtrack that made a powerful denunciation of the horrors of imperialist war and of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, which are continuing in the United States even now. Such a détournement — a very moderate one — is in the final analysis nothing more than the moral equivalent of the restoration of old paintings in museums." ("A User's Guide to Détournement", 1956)
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 11:38 AM on April 6, 2008

It's interesting: back in my halcyon days in college and gradschool, taking film courses, DWG and Birth of a Nation and his and its role in the language of film came up frequently; however, we never watched it. (We did see "Way Down East," though.)

I'm wondering if that had anything to do with my particular teachers not wanting to attach themselves to a movie with such an incendiary reputation, or them not wanting to open a can of worms, etc. Because it seems, for all the talk about the movie, that we should have screened it.

Thanks, Prof. flapjax! Time to edjamacate myself!
posted by not_on_display at 1:45 PM on April 6, 2008

But why view silent cinema as the onset of progress?

In part because this kind of film is a mass-culture medium rather than a niche medium. It's not fair to judge avant-garde performance are as "unwatchable," because for some people, it most certainly is watchable. However, things like Birth of a Nation were attempts at making film accessible to the masses. It's impressive that he was able to use the language of cinema so well before people really had much facility using that language and when watchers didn't really know much about understanding that language.

Citizen Kane was innovative for its day, as well. You can try to nudge your friend and explain to him how awesome it is because Orson Wells was able to film shots with a really long depth of focus and have indoor scenes where the ceiling was visible, which were stunning innovations in their day, but as a film to be watched for the masses, those things are no longer going to be impressive, except to those with an academic interest in the subject.
posted by deanc at 2:22 PM on April 6, 2008

For example, death is no longer seen as a preferable alternative to having sex with a black man.

Eh, that is a weird way to look at it. It's a rape scene, isn't it? The racism isn't in the woman for wanting to die instead of being raped, it's in the caricature of out of control black rapists.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:50 PM on April 6, 2008

Whew. Just watched it. What an evil piece of garbage.
posted by hojoki at 4:04 PM on April 6, 2008

Well, the film is art and it's also despicable. It is comforting to think of it, however, as a way to measure where we've been, where we are now and where we will be in 20 or 30 years.

My kids, and I hope I'm speaking for lots and lots of people, are so far removed from this kind of racism that it's difficult for me to be offended by it. Today this film is better suited to fighting racism than supporting it.
posted by snsranch at 5:42 PM on April 6, 2008

It's the second part that might bother you, because that's when Griffith turns the racism to 11.

I disagree.

The first part is far from innocuous, precisely because it depicts Antebellum slave society as a pre-lapsarian ideal of racial order. Remember, the movie does not have any black actors- all of the characters in the film, from the slaves in the beginning of the movie to the menacing Black "buck" rapist toward the end, are portrayed by white actors in blackface. The movie opens with a town scene (yes, the one where they take three minutes to read a thirty-word letter) and features white people with brown makeup pretending to be happy slaves adoring the white children entrusted to their care and generally thrilled to be chattel.

I found this extremely disturbing. When I wanted to have a copy of BOAN for use in my American history classes, I was permitted by my university's media center to make a copy. I was friends with the folks who ran the center, and the four of us (of a range of ethnic backgrounds) sat around chatting while the film unfolded on screen as it was copied. After about 15 minutes, our chatter turned to disturbed silence for several long minutes before one of the staff said what the rest of us were thinking, namely that she wanted to turn off the screen while the film was copying.

Seeing white people portraying happy slaves is part and parcel of the film's message, and the "bookend" to the rapist sequence at the end.

The film is an important artifact of cultural history and the history of film. I also think it has an important and useful place in teaching American history. But don't deceive yourself into thinking that any part of it is somehow distinguishable from the "Redeemer" narrative of the Reconstruction period that drives the film, with its attendant framework of white supremacy as both natural order and justice.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:25 PM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

See Ch. 1 of the YouTube version, beginning around minute 14 on.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:31 PM on April 6, 2008

I saw DJ Spooky's 'Rebirth of a Nation' in Wellington. It was outstanding. (Also cool, he had run out of CDs to sell so told the audience that it was fine with him if we obtained it by 'other' means.)
posted by Paragon at 2:42 AM on April 7, 2008

« Older Charlton Heston dead at 84   |   Too Much Sunshine Will Make Him Explode. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments