Birth of a Nation (3 stars)

Birth Of A Nation

DW Griffith's cinematographicly innovative masterpiece struggles to overcome nauseating theme


It's easy to say that DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation was a product of its time but is this letting the film right off the hook? Straight after its release in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan used the movie as their key tool for a new recruitment drive (and were still using it for that purpose six decades later). Given that the film's reaction also included riots across America and criticism from recently-formed civil rights groups surely indicates that Griffith wasn't living in an ivory tower cosseted by his own artistic naivety.

Indeed, so stunned was he by the reaction to Birth of a Nation, that he appeared to do everything in his power to not be damned forever as a director of racist filth: he immediately went out and made Intolerance, a multi-strand tale about the evils of social injustice, and later smashed the taboo of portraying inter-racial love with Broken Blossoms.

On the face of it, there is very little not to loathe about the late 19th century-set Birth of a Nation* with America going through civil war, the assassination of a president and racial strife on its streets. A crass visual metaphor in which a kitten and a puppy just can't get along sets the scene for grotesque segments in which black men (the majority being white men blacked up) are shown as drunkards, layabouts and cruel sex fiends while Griffith paints the KKK as heroes riding to America's rescue on their hooded horses. Technically, the film is an innovative masterpiece, but it's impossible not to watch it without feeling the nausea rise in your throat.

Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith - Trailer (1915)