“The worst thing about The Birth Of A Nation is how good it is.”
That, in a nutshell, describes how problematic D W Griffith’s epic silent film The Birth Of A Nation is.
On one hand, Griffith pioneered many new film making techniques, synthesizing what we would consider much of the modern syntax of film today. Much of that can be seen being worked out in Birth. On the other hand, you can’t take the film’s story of how the South, laboring under the harsh indignity of reconstruction, is saved from hordes of former slaves by the heroic efforts of the Ku Klux Klan as anything more than racist propaganda. And that’s before you factor in the fact that all former slaves in the film are played by white actors in black face.
Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the film’s New York City premiere, so National Public Radio’s All Things Considered examined the film’s history and the problems inherent in studying the film today. How do you teach a film that is important to the development of film as art when it contains so vile a message?