Sunday, 19 April 2015

1915: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
1915, and I finally get to review a feature film. There were a few feature length pictures before this but none of such epic scale, and none that made such an impact.
I have seen this before, but many years ago and I remembered little about it this so was almost like a first viewing for me.  
Over three hours long, it follows the fortunes of two families - one Northern, one Southern, through the American Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed.  It has action, romance, pathos, tragedy, moments of humour, and the most spectacular battle scenes yet filmed. Woodrow Wilson compared it to "seeing history through flashes of lightning".
You might think the choice of heroes a little odd though - the Ku Klux Klan.
After the first half of the film, which deals mainly with the Civil War and the losses suffered by both families, we start to see the problems faced by the South Carolina family, the Camerons, following the assassination of Lincoln. The black slaves have been freed and now hold (we are told) a majority in the state senate. They form all-black juries and rule (arbitrarily, it's implied) against white people in legal cases. (The main black characters, incidentally, are all played by white actors in make-up - which must have looked unconvincing even then.)  
When war hero Ben Cameron's sister is killed running from a black man in the woods, it's the last straw and he decides to take matters into his own hands. He's inspired when he sees some black kids scared by another child hiding under a white sheet.
When this film was released on Blu-Ray recently, one reviewer remarked on the opening scene - an historic tableau of slaves being blessed by a white clergyman, preceded by the caption "The Bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion". His interpretation of this was that the film was racist from the start, blaming the blacks for the whole problem. Before watching the film I thought this was unfair - I'd have taken it to mean that the practice of slavery was the cause of it all - and I wondered if the film was getting a bad rap from people predisposed to see it in a certain light. It's easier and safer to shout 'racism' than to look deeper and present a more balanced view.
That's not easy, though, when we have scenes of Cameron's sister's black assailant being given what the captions tell us, without any hint of irony, is a "fair trail" by the Ku Klux Klan, complete with white hoods and flaming crosses, before his body is dumped on the courthouse steps.
In Griffith's defence, Lillian Gish, who starred in the film as a teenager, was interviewed about the film in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's landmark 1979 documentary series"Hollywood".  She insists that Griffith had nothing against the blacks, notes that the chief villain is a white man, Austin Stoneman, a senator whose policy of full equality for blacks is presented as dangerously radical. The character is based on Thaddeus Stevens, whom she quotes as saying "we will crush the white South under the heels of the black South". Blanche Sweet, another of Griffith's leading ladies, says "You had to take Griffith and his Southern background seriously... it's a very important part of the man. You couldn't have been brought up with all that background of the South without it colouring your feelings. I don't wonder that they have called Griffith a racist."
Even so, Griffith was seriously out of step even a hundred years ago. Roger Ebert notes: "So instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with that the offences in the film actually had to be explained to him".
Perhaps it was this that prompted him, soon after it premiered, to change the title to "The Birth of a Nation" from "The Clansman", the name of the play on which it is based, even though the film itself laments the loss of sovereignty of the individual states. And on a later release he added a title card that read "If this work has conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain." As if that was the sole intended message the whole time.
We're left with the troubling question of whether you can have a good film with a bad message. I suppose it just depends on how you define it. The film's technical achievement is beyond reproach, but as drama - well, it's hard to root for a lynch mob, and its release led to race riots and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan - hardly an endorsement most directors would wish for.