Today in my silent film class we watched “The Birth of a Nation”, directed by the technically brilliant, and completely insane DW Griffith. I knew the general gist of the story, but I was a little surprised by some stuff in it. I hope I don’t ruin this movie for anyone who was planning on watching a 3 hour silent film from 1915 this weekend. The movie’s about a Northern and a Southern family during the Civil War; I knew that, and I knew there was some racism involved before I started watching. Allow me to share some super ridiculous, racist moments:
1) Almost all the black characters (and I use the term characters loosely, because they’re all stereotypes) are played by white characters in blackface.
2) There’s a scene in which a room full of black political representatives recline, put up their bare feet, drink whiskey, and yes, I kid you not…eat fried chicken. I guess that wasn’t an offensive clich頡t that time yet.
3) The hero of the story founds…oh yeah, brace yourself…the ku klux clan. His “noble” purpose…to liberate the south from oppressive carpetbaggers and racially impure peoples.
On top of all this sludge, the “silent film” is not really silent at all. All three hours are accompanied by the most horrific, monotonous organ music.
I won’t say the movie was worthless because there’s a lot to be learned from it as far as the technical aspects of filmmaking. DW Griffith essentially put together the entire existing repertoire of film shots into one movie and thus paved the way for more modern cinema. It doesn’t change the fact that he was a whacko. Some could argue that it’s hard to be “beyond your times”…in short, everyone was racist at that time. Well, this movie brought before the high courts the first case of film censorship…lots of people were offended by the racism and boycotted the movie. Crazy, interesting stuff.