Old Ass Movies: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

By  · Published on January 2nd, 2011

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the controversial story of how the KKK saved the south and how D.W. Griffith invented every camera trick you love.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Directed by: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, and Walter Long

Growing up under the shadow of a grandfather who was a Civil War historian living in Arkansas, a grandmother who knew just as much, and two parents who collected antiques from the era, it was difficult to live in the present – especially around Christmas time when everyone would get together and exchange Mourning Jewelry and buttons that fell off the coats of dying men to be buried in the loam of Mississippi.

It was also a melting pot of history and visions of where we, as a nation, came from. The truth is always a bit difficult to get to, but every so often a film comes along that seems to toss it out completely. The effect in the case of The Birth of a Nation was a violent rejection of the subject matter.

There are most likely two main reasons for that, thanks to simple human armchair psychology. Of course the movie challenged how people saw a desperate moral issue, but even more so, the movie tells the audience that what they know about who they are is fundamentally wrong.

How does it do that? By emboldening the heroism of the KKK in the reconstruction of a South where Northern gadflies, freed slaves, and the moral high ground are all threatening to destroy the bedrock of a peaceful society.

It’s a story that shocks the senses, but in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. Movies are supposed to challenge our thinking patterns and the things we hold dear. Birth of a Nation does that in grand form while also proving that we don’t have to purely accept every version of history put up on the big screen.

Beyond that, there are really two main reasons to watch the film.

The storytelling here is as powerful as it is infuriating. Divided into the pre- and post-war eras, it features a black militia ransacking an innocent family’s house until being bested by a confederate detachment; a scene where white citizens are denied the right to vote while black citizens do so in a disenfranchising power grab; and the KKK playing protector whether it be the virginity of young women or the purity of the government.

The film takes its narrative from the Thomas Dixon novel “The Clansman,” and both come directly from the Dunning school of historical thought which places the blame for the South’s condition during an after Reconstruction on blacks being unable to truly integrate and Northerners taking over in a soft coup. Essentially, the South and its white populace are destroyed by an unworkable new morality and de facto foreign leaders who are able to punish them because Abraham Lincoln was taken out of the equation by an actor’s bullet.

What’s striking here is how outrageous it is. As history, it’s completely incorrect, but it’s not incorrect because it gets (all) facts wrong. It’s incorrect because it overlooks and throws out a ton of other facts that round out the view. There was no universal Good or Evil riding alongside the flanks of Freedom and its moral necessity. There were villainous abolitionists just as there were virtuous Southern farmers. There was a grand idealism being fought over (and many institutions in the South chose the wrong historical and ethical side), but after the trumpet blasts of purity died down, there were real human beings (complete with their failings and honor) trying to rebuild (or keep down) the “Other America.”

While the history of The Birth of a Nation is faulty, it’s undoubtedly emotionally true for certain segments of the population. Even when the film came out fifty years after the Civil War (even one hundred years after during the Civil Rights Movement), there were whole groups of the population who had to have felt like this movie got it more right than the historians would end up getting it. That’s important to remember, especially in light of the “correctness” of our history.

The second reason to risk boiling blood to see it can be broken up into four categories. Deep Focus, The Jump-Cut, The Cross Cut, and the Extreme Close-Up.

All of these camera techniques should seem familiar because they’re all employed regularly in modern filmmaking. All of them were also developed in The Birth of a Nation. That’s not to say that they were all invented by D.W. Griffith for this picture (Twilight of a Woman’s Soul had used Deep Focus two full years before), but his influential style cannot be overlooked. While some (rightly) praise Battleship Potemkin for its cinematography, Birth of a Nation was using similar methods a full decade earlier.

The result, and perhaps the real reason to watch it beyond pretending to care about the academics of camera techniques, is an intensely beautiful film.

That’s the conflict. Griffith made a deplorable movie that’s difficult to take your eyes off of. While the shots are visually appealing, the content is enough to make some stomachs turn, but as Roger Ebert once pointed out, it’s also incredibly vital to study evil, the argument for evil, and Birth of a Nation certainly makes that argument with style.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.