Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915)

Saw Birth of a Nation again recently on TCM and it's hair-raising in ways Griffith likely never intended--you can't believe the shit he puts in here: a Senate taken over by blacks, a courtroom with a black judge and jury; you want to ask "Since when did black people have that kind of power?"

What's startling is how many genuine blacks actually appear in this movie. Can't account for this except I suppose they thought it was a role just like any other, and that they didn't know what the film was really about. Griffith does use blackface for crucial roles--Silas Lynch, the rapist, the faithful servants.

On the other hand, Griffith's bewilderment seems inexplicable: if he was so unaware of the film's effect on blacks, why use blackface in those roles? It implies that he knew blacks wouldn't play them, no matter how hard up for work. Or does 'bewildered' mean his reaction to the white people who protested? That would lower my estimation of him a notch further.

That said, it's tremendously exciting filmmaking, and you get caught up in the climax despite yourself, with a humdinger of an ending because the Klan rides to the rescue. Interesting to note, that assault by the Klan of the black town feels like Griffith's way of restaging his Civil War battle, earlier in the film, only this time the right side wins.

Griffith's final images are fascinating--he's done with the story, and this is where he gets up on his high soap box, and gives us a pious message--Dare we Dream of the Day when Bestial War is Gone, and The Prince of Brotherly Love. We get an image of a man on a horse, towering over all these people writhing on the ground; we have a fifty-foot Christ, half-buried in the ground, with hundreds of the faithful innocents (and they would be innocents, to head for some bearded giant with hands outstretched) gathering around him. Beautiful in a cheesy way, detailed and lovingly staged. A real jawdropper.

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