Nov. 20, 1995
In 'The Birth of a Nation,' the Birth of Serious Film
By Molly Haskell
The defining moment for the motion picture as a mass medium, an art form and a disturbingly powerful social force, occurred on a bitterly cold night on March 3, 1915, at the Liberty Theater in New York.
It was the world premiere of D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," an event of such cultural magnitude that 80 years later, controversies still rage among film scholars over its racially charged images.
Until that time, the movie industry had not demonstrated its irreversible dominance as mainstream entertainment. Ambitious movies had been made before 1915, but never had audiences been so moved.
"Birth of a Nation," which would become the most widely seen movie of its era, made it clear that film was a medium that could generate powerful emotions, even in the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson would say of Griffith's movie, "It is like writing history with lightning."
An epic that ran two hours and 40 minutes (the need to interject screens of dialogue text tended to make silent features longer than their subsequent "talkie" counterparts would be), the film traced the shifting fortunes of two related families in the North and the South on the eve of the Civil War, during the war and in the tumultuous Reconstruction that followed.
Griffith, a Southerner by birth, could remember from his childhood all the horror stories about Reconstruction. But the major source of the movie's racial bigotry was "The Clansman," Thomas Dixon's overwrought novel of hate and intolerance, from which the film was adapted.
The film's most inflammatory scenes involve the sexual pursuit of two white women by liberated black slave men, and the heroic rescue of the women by members of a glorified Ku Klux Klan. Most, but not all, of the black roles were played by white actors in blackface.
Besides helping to revive the actual Klan as a disruptive force in American life, the movie's melodramatic treatment of sexual encounters between blacks and whites cast miscegenation as a screen taboo that would be forbidden by the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America well into the 1950s.
A decade after the debut of "Birth of a Nation," even the acclaimed Soviet film makers Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin were hailing Griffith for his artistic refinement of such devices as varied screen sizes, close-ups, parallel narratives and symbolic imagery.
But his incendiary propaganda for racial superiority has continually presented serious film scholars with a persistent problem: How to reconcile the enormous technical and stylistic advances of the first genius in the medium with his deplorably provincial reading of American history?
Griffith's heroines, too, were paradoxical - delicate flowers of the antebellum South, yet iron-willed in defense of their chastity. Much of the movie's intensity came from the remarkable performances of Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh as quintessential Victorian heroines, buffeted by the tides of social change.
In Griffith's masterpiece, sublimity of expression was marred by a melodramatic racism. Yet "The Birth of a Nation," warts and all, remains a milestone: the movie that catapulted the medium from its 19th-century peep-show origins into its status as the great new popular art form of the 20th century.
Copyright 1995 The New York Times
David B. Pearson has created another wonderful site, this one complete with clips from some of The Master's greatest works.
D. W. Griffith
A surprisingly extensive biography/filmogrphy on Griffith from TVGuide.
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