Birth of A Nation

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.

Eight things you might not know about the Ford Model T

1. Though it is undeniably the driving force behind the adoption of automation in industry, the Model T wasn’t the first car made on a production line – that was the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, beginning in 1901.

2. Famously the Model T was available in “any color as long as it’s black” – however for the first five years it wasn’t black at all, but came in gray, green, blue, and red varieties. The uniform black paint was adopted in 1913 in order to save money on materials and production.

3. To start your Model T you had to turn a crank which could kick back and break your arm or (very occasionally) exit at missile velocity. The choke and throttle controls were mounted on the steering column, and needed to be set as soon as the engine started, so you had to run back and do this before the engine died.

4. The car had no speedometer, one gear and only one door. All models were, however built with a jack stand on the rear axle, which allowed the owner to remove the rear wheel and place a flat belt on the hub in order to power farm equipment.

5. Early models had their seats stuffed with dried moss, which undoubtedly was very comfortable, but which led to a recall when it was found to harbour hoards of tiny, biting bugs

6. The Model T was produced with fundamentally the same design for almost 20 years – and the worlds (and roads) of 1908 and 1927 were markedly different. Henry Ford was furious when any engineers suggested the blueprint be changed.

7. At $300 in 1925, it was the first car which was affordable for blue collar workers in America, and he also paid his workers a wage which far surpassed what they could get elsewhere. Before we hail him as a hero of the modern age however…

8. Henry Ford’s racism and antisemitism are surely widely known at this point – but the extent of this and its bizarre implications still beggars belief. Not only did you have to be a white male protestant to work on his factory floor, and sign a “morals contract”, but he invented and publicised square dancing purely in order to counteract the black and allegedly jewish jazz culture of the 1920s. To describe him as a crackpot doesn’t really do him justice – these are the actual words he used (in “The International Jew”, a favourite of Adolf Hitler) to describe the popular culture of the times;

“Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.”

Further reading here:

Two-part biographical podcast on Ford here and here.

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