Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Birth of a Nation" is a Good Movie

Richard Brody thinks that the "worst thing" about D.W. Griffith's film "Birth of a Nation" is "how good it is."

I assigned parts of this 1915 feature film back when I taught the second half of the United States survey course.  It offered students a glimpse into American understandings of race in the early 20th century.

The film, of course, is D.W. Griffith's interpretation of Reconstruction, the tumultuous decade (or so) that followed the end of the Civil War.  It depicts slavery in a positive light, glorifies the racial views of Southern whites and the Ku Klux Klan, and frowns upon the efforts of Radical Republicans who fought for Black equality.

While modern viewers of the film would find it offensive, most white people who lived in 1915 American loved it.  Brody, the movie editor at The New Yorker, calls it an "original work of art."  Here is a taste of his review:

The worst thing about “Birth of a Nation” is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love. And it’s that very conflict that renders the film all the more despicable, the experience of the film more of a torment—together with the acknowledgment that Griffith, whose short films for Biograph were already among the treasures of world cinema, yoked his mighty talent to the cause of hatred (which, still worse, he sincerely depicted as virtuous).

Griffith’s art offers humanly profound moments, whether graceful and delicate or grand and rhetorical, that detach themselves from their context to probe nearly universal circumstances, such as the blend of shame and pride in the face of a returning Confederate soldier when he comes home in tatters and finds his sister in tatters as well, or the stalwart antics of a Union girl (Lillian Gish) as she sends her brothers off to war before collapsing in tears when they’re just out of view. The breathtaking shot that starts close to a huddling mother and children, high on a hillside, and then moves to the advance of Sherman’s army, seen from the family’s elevated refuge, poignantly depicts the intimate ravages of war. The shot of a former slave-owner, under siege by a posse of freedmen for his son’s membership in the K.K.K., holding his grown daughter by the hair and raising his pistol above her head—he’s preparing to kill her if the blacks breach the door—has a harrowing and exalted grandeur that surpasses the film's specific prejudices to achieve a classical moment of tragedy. The cavalry charges of the K.K.K., done with moving cameras that hurtle backward at the speed of the gallop, are visually exhilarating and viscerally thrilling, despite the hateful and bloodthirsty repression that they represent; it's the kinetic model for a century of action scenes. 

Read the entire review here.

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