Problematic, contradictory art is inherently compelling, because it has to be navigated and sorted, and because it tends to produce these x-but-also-y mysteries that can’t be completely solved, but instead just have to be accepted for what they are. As far as problematic art in America is concerned, Birth Of A Nation is the closest thing there is to a dictionary definition example, mostly because American culture has had a really hard time letting it go, or has turned not letting it go into a critical art in and of itself. Birth Of A Nation is the movie where many of the values associated with American filmmaking—complex intercutting, massed crowds of extras contrasted with close-ups of actors, carefully edited suspense and chase scenes—get their first really clear, fully formed expression. It’s also unquestionably white supremacist and racist. It represents a key point in the history of American art, and is animated by some of the ugliest rhetoric America ever produced.
You can’t write a history of American movies—or movies in general—without mentioning Birth Of A Nation. That’s not really what I want to talk about here, though. What I want to talk about instead is an idea that’s also connected to Birth Of A Nation, which is the idea that art or entertainment can be aesthetically good while being ideologically bad—an idea that’s kind of intoxicating, because it suggests that it’s possible to navigate a movie on form alone, and also deeply problematic, because it’s founded on the notion that style and content are two different things, rather than different ways of looking at the same object. This is, in some ways, a political issue, and like most movie-related political issues, it’s a variation on “Where do we draw the line, and why?”
Birth Of A Nation—which is technically called The Birth Of A Nation, but is rarely referred to using the definite article—premiered on February 8, 1915, in Los Angeles. At the time, it was called The Clansman, though advertisements for its earliest screenings also bear the subtitle The Birth Of The Nation. It is a long movie, currently standardized at around 190 minutes. (In the days of hand-cranked cameras and projectors, running times varied a lot from theater to theater.) Like a lot of long movies from the silent era, it only survives in a re-cut version.
In the most basic terms, Birth Of A Nation is a melodrama and a fantasy of white Southern victimhood—which is to say, a fantasy of power, which made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a product of director-producer D.W. Griffith’s fusty vision, with intertitles written in florid Victorianese (including footnotes), a two-part structure that mimics the decades-spanning novels of the 19th century, and women so pale and delicate that, photographed from the right angle, they appear noseless.
The black characters are racist caricatures—“coal miner with back problems” is the most popular look—played by white people; plenty of black people appear as extras, which makes the blackface seem all the more racist, because one inevitably experiences the extras not just as actors, but as an on-screen audience. The villains are biracial schemers who’ve tricked or seduced Northern whites into believing that they are fit to run Southern society. (“I shall make this man, Silas Lynch, as a symbol of his race, the peer of any white man living!” declares Austin Stoneman, the movie’s stand-in for Thaddeus Stevens, as though he were Dr. Frankenstein contemplating his monster.) Peppered throughout are assorted pacifist asides (“War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice,” “War, the breeder of hate,” and so on) and the whole thing ends with a giant, translucent Jesus appearing to endorse the KKK. Griffith’s original ending, now long lost, also either depicted or implied blacks being deported to Africa.
There has never been a time when Birth Of A Nation wasn’t considered reactionary and deeply racist, and it was banned upon initial release in plenty of American communities. (In Chicago, The A.V. Club’s home base, police continued shutting down screenings well into the 1940s, despite a court ruling that said they weren’t allowed to.) There has also never been a time when Birth Of A Nation wasn’t considered a capital-I important film; it was heavily promoted, with an outrageous premium ticket price ($2.00, at a time when movie tickets averaged a nickel) and ads packed with quotes from assorted cultural figures—most completely forgotten now—declaring it the best movie ever made, Larry King-style.
Which is to say that it can be difficult to disentangle Birth Of A Nation from the myth it created for itself early on. Any Griffith fan worth their salt will tell you that Intolerance—the director’s millennia-spanning follow-up, a costly flop in its time—is a much better movie in every respect, or that Griffith made dozens of features and shorts that are better than Birth Of A Nation. (This writer, for one, would pick True Heart Susie, Orphans Of The Storm, Abraham Lincoln, and the modern story from Intolerance—begun as a stand-alone feature, and released that way later, as The Mother And The Law—as his best work, along with any number of shorts he made at Biograph.) At the same time, one can’t say that the racism of Birth Of A Nation is an outlier; racist caricatures are all over the director’s early ’20s movies—many of them played by Porter Strong, Griffith’s go-to blackface performer—and even the nominally anti-racist Broken Blossoms is built on Orientalist imagery that is intrinsically racist.
Intrinsically racist is the operative term here. The big, prevailing idea about Birth Of A Nation is that the movie’s narrative and aesthetic values are not related to its racism. The problems with this line of thinking start with the fact that there’s no contradiction between the white supremacist worldview of Birth Of A Nation and its moments of tenderness and romance, or between its saintly depiction of Abraham Lincoln and its fixation on the plantation class as victims. In the world that Birth Of A Nation creates, the Civil War just sort of happens out of nowhere, cruelly pitting friends against each other, and the death of Lincoln—presented as a kind of fair philosopher-king—paves the way for carpet-baggers to destroy Southern society by legalizing interracial marriage (equated with rape) and giving blacks the right to vote. This, in turn, is presented as “the agony which the South endured that a nation might be born.”
In other words, what’s so deeply problematic about Birth Of A Nation is the fact that it isn’t really problematic at all—at least not internally. The movie’s complicated structure and overall visual design—that tendency to associate goodness with pure whiteness, whether it’s the robes of the Klan or the beatific face of Lillian Gish—are all consistent with a vision built on idealized 19th-century values, a world that never really existed except in Griffith’s imagination. Transposed into the medium of film, that naïve vision becomes formally radical. In many ways, it’s the vision that the whole idea of having a vision—at least as it pertains to movies—is founded upon. It has a depth of its own; for one, there’s nothing about the director’s progressive, at times downright feminist depictions of women—the most complicated characters in his films, including this one—that contradicts that quasi-Victorian ideal of fair-skinned feminine purity that figures in most of his movies.
So, back to that earlier question: “Where do we draw the line, and why?” It might seem like we’re drawing one of those form-content lines within the film, but what we’re really doing—at least when we try to talk about Birth Of A Nation as something that’s “aesthetically important”—is drawing a line within our own values, which, much like the values of the film, tend to more be more closely related than we’d like to believe. Taste is always hitting some kind of ideological button, even if it’s unconscious; no reaction comes straight from the gut.
For most people, including those who’ll flat-out tell you the movie is repulsive, which it often is, Birth Of A Nation still conforms to their definition of good filmmaking. Many will tell you that a movie can be well made and still be bad. I’m not sure that’s true; how an image is made is directly related to its subject. Which is what makes Birth Of A Nation so problematic and so hard to dismiss, even after a century—because it represents a contradiction within our own values about what movies aspire to be.