Not only is there no defending The Birth of A Nation in 2019, it’s wildly offensive even for 1915. A film made to glorify the Klu Klux Klan by claiming that they saved the USA from (appalling racist caricatures of) unruly black people, it was picketed by the NAACP on release, but was enough of a hit to inspire the real KKK to return from semi-retirement to murder thousands of black people. It would be hard to imagine another film doing as much to harm humanity as a whole, and beyond any other considerations, this should clearly mark it as a bad film.
Inconveniently it’s also a landmark in filmmaking history – not the first feature film, but the one which was big enough to get everyone else making them, and a spectacle so vast and varied that it wouldn’t be matched in scale for decades. Director D.W. Griffith was a leader in the field already, but the release of the film shot him into superstardom, and he took the sleepy Californian community of Hollywood with him.
So I watched Birth of A Nation, all three hours and thirteen minutes of it, to find out if there is anything to salvage.
In terms of writing, no. The script is a hackneyed bunch of racist cliches muddled with sentimental war stories and bad political fantasy. In terms of acting, also no. Lilian Gish puts in some fairly decent work as ever, but the horrible blackface performers undo everything – the public in crowd scenes are no worse than most of the other actors. But in terms of cinematography, in the first half of the film at least, there are some moments of sublime beauty which this piece of trash does not deserve in any way. These don’t really come across in still images, but I’ll try.
Part of it is awe at the scale of everything, but I can’t deny there was some real talent wasted in making this film.
If you want to judge this for yourself, the whole thing is available on Youtube.