Sons of the Silent Age: The innovation and racism of Birth of a Nation
HELLO and welcome to a new, hopefully irregular feature in the annals of SCM: Sons of the Silent Age. In this feature, we’ll be examining the continuing resonance of silent films, their influence on contemporary cinema and their merits as films in their own right. To kick us off, we have one of the most influential, important and problematic films of all time: Birth of a Nation.
It’s impossible to underestimate the massive influence Birth of a Nation had on a still nascent medium. Feature films themselves were, at the time, still in their infancy; the first (surviving) narrative film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released in 1906, a mere nine years before Griffith’s film. Even his own prior works, among them the Biblically-tinged Judith of Bethulia (released the year before), displayed none of the relentless ambition that characterised Birth of a Nation’s decade-spanning sprawl.
Now celebrating its centenary, the film is regarded as one of the most influential and widely-acclaimed classics of the silent era. It is also unquestionably one of the most racist pieces of work to ever break the box office. A clear product of its time, D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece was a veritable blockbuster, smashing records of both length and gross. Beautiful in its outdoor landscape shots and intimate family sit-downs; ugly in its crude depiction of blacks as a psychopathic, fried-chicken-guzzling sub-species, the film is one of intense contradictions that might prove difficult for a modern audience to unravel.
Adapted from notorious negrophobe Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, Birth of a Nation follows the fortunes of two families on either side of the North/South divide: The Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South. Tellingly divided into two parts – the American Civil War and the Reconstruction – the film finds time to juggle love, Lincoln and lynching, all while eulogising the “Old South” and demonising those pesky black folk as dunderheaded murder rapists.
Obviously, the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as avenging knights of truth and justice is a tad problematic. That it inspired a revival of the group in the years following its release is moreso; they even used the film as a recruitment tool. It’s not hard to see why: The film paints the KKK in such a wholesome light – the WASP Brotherhood of forthright Americans putting the emancipated black man in his place from the saddles of bannered white horses – that it crosses over into outright propaganda at times.
Perhaps this is unsurprising in a time when the Civil War was still in living memory, but much of its fascination lies in its (unintentional) window into white paranoia and negrophobia. The KKK’s defiance of the mainly-black state militia is a defence of the Old South and its values of slavery over integration. The film is as much an epic of the Civil War and the Reconstruction – of the divide between North and South – as it is an epic of racism itself, a work brimming with prejudice and revisionism.
On the other hand, its litany of cinematic innovations is a sight to behold. Among them, Griffith’s penchant for interesting angles flew in the face of the conventional mode for static, uninvolving shots filmed in profile. When Flora (Mae Marsh) flees from her prospective rapist Gus (Walter Long) as Ben (Henry B. Walthall) desperately tries to find her, Griffith’s use of parallel action is thrilling as he quickly cross-cuts between the two scenarios.
This snappy editing comes to the fore in the climactic sequence, which features the KKK riding out to save a barricaded group of whites from being attacked by a raving mob of blacks. Though it remains impossible to extricate the film’s ingrained prejudice, its genius is impeccable, especially in a time where such techniques were unheard of. The editing also informs a swashbuckling pace which, in spite of its record-breaking three-hour length, never lets up, borne along by a rip-roaring score composed especially for the film (another innovation) by Joseph Carl Briel.
It was intended as a saga for the ages (this dream would be ratified with Intolerance, itself a response to the criticism Griffith received for racial insensitivity), as sweeping and melodramatic as any romance novel. A thwarted novelist himself, Griffith was also deeply humanist. A Corner in Wheat, a Griffith short from 1909, depicts the greed of a wheat tycoon who attempts to corner the world market in, well, wheat.
Though patently absurd – confirmed by the cartoonish, cackling villainy of its central antagonist – the short sympathises deeply with the ordinary people unable to afford bread because of price hikes. Birth of a Nation wears its humanist heart on a different sleeve by decrying the “bitter, useless” folly of war. The Civil War battle sequences – astonishing in their scale, teeming with hundreds of tiny, flag-waving extras – are swamped in mud and bodies. They are as sombre as the KKK sequences are triumphant.
A moment shared between friends on opposing sides is one of common humanity, a poignant shot amidst carnage. Despite its vested sympathy for the Confederate cause, the film does not necessarily shy away from the Unionist toll, even if it means, as stated by a title card, uniting “in defence of their Aryan birthright”. These battle scenes are contrasted with the warmth and intimacy of domesticity, Griffith preaching the virtues of (white) family values.
Elsewhere, blacks in the House of Representatives are barefoot, openly drink alcohol and literally eat fried chicken. Later, in a confrontation between rioting blacks and the oh-so oppressed white townsfolk, a black woman defiantly scoffs some more fried chicken in the whites’ faces. Blacks in the film are stupid, grotty, psychopathic and sexually-predatory; whites are noble, rational upholders of vestal purity.
Black emancipation is tempered by barbarism, corrected only by the righteous avengers in the KKK, who receive implicit endorsement from Christ himself by the film’s conclusion. Lynch (George Siegmann, who looks like Richard Nixon with blackface), the film’s “mulatto” antagonist, forces himself on a white woman while declaring, “I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.” Southern fears of miscegenation are crystallised by Lynch and the scheming Lydia Brown (Mary Alden, also in blackface), both of whom usurp the patriarch’s authority through guile and seduction.
It is against this oppressive backdrop that Birth of a Nation makes its case for fellowship. It’s a poisoned chalice of inherent contradiction; whites are offered eternal brotherhood and blacks are intimidated into not voting by hooded thugs. Its depiction of blacks – mainly white men and women in blackface – is truly horrendous. For many, however, the film’s artistry was simply too vast to waste time on little things like the toxic smearing of an entire race.
Birth of a Nation codified the visual language of film while tampering with its historical veracity and ethical integrity. Striking advances in cinematography and filmic narrative cohabitate with attitudes straight out of the Stone Age. Its influence seeped not only into cinema, but also into the public at large; NAACP campaigning, KKK clamouring and its ban in several cities only stoked the fires of controversy. It even found its way into The White House, where President Woodrow Wilson – already quoted in the film via intertitle – described it as “writing history with lightning”.
Eventually, the film would gross, adjusted for inflation, anywhere between $420 million to a staggering $1.4 billion. It became the highest-grossing film ever made, holding on to that title for 20 years. Considering its own problematic relationship with racism, Gone with the Wind almost seems like an appropriate choice to have knocked Griffith’s film from the pedestal. It proved that racial sensibilities hadn’t changed all that much; if nothing else, Birth of a Nation had bolstered them, setting the civil rights cause back a few decades, especially in the South.
For all this, and without wishing to excuse its obvious flaws, the film is a marvel, a monumental achievement in a still-developing medium that launched the careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of film-makers. It can be an uncomfortable sit, no doubt, but it’s worth the time for any self-professed lover of cinema. This, for all intents and purposes, is where it truly began.