Lightning, Camera, Action: As the Birth of a Nation Turns 90, Its Racism Is out of Bounds, but Its More Enduring Impact Can Be Seen Just by Turning on the Television

Article excerpt

CAN PHOTOGRAPHS, MOTION PICTURES, and television create social change? Or would it be more accurate to say that these camera-based forms construct a social reality? Michael Moore notwithstanding, the ultimate test case appeared 90 years ago: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, released throughout America in the spring of 1915, remains the single most important movie ever made in this country, as well as the most inflammatory one.

A culmination of the hundreds of short, two-reel narratives, more or less codifying the language of narrative cinema, that Griffith ground out at the Biograph studio between 1908 and 1913, The Birth of a Nation was the longest, costliest, and most ambitious American movie of its day. Imagine an unholy cross between The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, combined and rendered mega-Titanic (most movies in 1915 were still only 20 minutes long), drenched in the patriotic pathos of Saving Private Ryan, and tricked out with the historical shenanigans of Forrest Gump. It still wouldn't approximate the magnitude of Griffith's fervent, tendentious, wildly entertaining achievement.

Viewers were inundated with a cascade of images--1,500 separate shots when other features had fewer than 100. Like the Henry Ford of cine narrative, Griffith created an assembly line for cinema meaning; he broke dramatic scenes into component parts and reassembled them for maximum emotional impact. The Birth of a Nation hurtled through time and space, making unprecedented use of close-ups, cutaways, and parallel action. The miracle of moving pictures, less than 20 years old, was projected into the past. Griffith gave motion to Matthew Brady's photographs and staged Lincoln's assassination as a "historical facsimile," complete with footnotes. Masses of extras were deployed to recreate the Battle of Petersburg and Sherman's march to the sea. Audiences were swept away; in some cities, the action was pumped with a 40-piece symphony orchestra.

In short, Griffith had produced the wonder of the age: a technological marvel, a masterpiece of promotion, a brilliantly constructed emotional roller coaster, a box-office gold mine--and an utterly unambiguous and ruthlessly demagogic attack on African Americans. The Birth of a Nation is not simply the precursor of every Hollywood historical epic, stalker film, and thriller ever made; adapted from a best-selling novel by the Reverend Thomas Dixon that offered a militantly white-supremacist perspective on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Griffith's movie is an ideological horror show, filled with outrageous factual distortions and vile racial stereotypes. In the Gospel according to Griffith, the American nation is born when, as one of the film's climactic intertitles has it, the Ku Klux Klan enables North and South to unite in defense of their common "Aryan birthright."

The Birth of a Nation was released for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War--just as America's ultimate trauma was poised to pass from living memory into national mythology. The son of a Kentucky colonel, Griffith took it upon himself to rewrite, and re-right, a historical wrong--an act for which he sought, and received, official sanction. Two days before submitting the movie to the National Board of Review, he previewed it for President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet. Wilson responded with the ultimate pull quote: "It is like writing history with lightning." The following night the president had it screened for the justices of the Supreme Court and members of Congress.

The film was immediately attacked by many organizations--notably the NAACP, which issued a statement declaring that "every resource of a magnificent new art has been employed with an undeniable attempt to picture Negroes in the worst possible light." But it helped revive the KKK. Some 25,000 Klansmen marched down Peachtree Street in full regalia to celebrate the Atlanta premiere. Contested virtually everywhere it opened outside the old Confederacy, The Birth of a Nation was banned outright in Chicago, Cleveland, St. …