It goes without saying, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation might be the most controversial film ever made. It also might be the most influential of all time. It has its’ marks on almost every narrative film ever released. It also contains content that almost anyone of a sound mind would consider offensive and racist.
To fully understand the impact, we have to visit the time period in which it was released. In 1915, American cinema was still in its’ infancy, a growing child, in a constant state of development. For the most part. many films released before this were merely extensions of the American Vaudeville circuit, corny, laughable and a source of a cheap laugh. This changes in 1903 with the release of The Great Train Robbery, one of the first American films to have a narrative plot, and use film to successfully tell a dramatic story.
Which brings me to Griffith himself, to put it simply. he was a pioneer of the cinema. He formulated such techniques as the use of the establishing shot, as well as the panoramic long shot. This is a film that proved cinema could be used to tell a story on a large scale. Containing not just one narrative, but several interwoven together, the sub plot.
So where lies the controversy? All of these techniques are now present in modern films. 100 years have passed, and its’ influence remains present at modern box office. Why the commotion?
That answer lies within the content of the film itself. Although it contains a historical depiction (i use the word somewhat loosely) of the American civil war, it also could be described as a propaganda film for the Ku Klux Klan. Depicting African Americans as savages, rapists, and inhuman mongrels. At the same time, it paints the Klan as the mythological white knight, breaking down the castle drawbridge to save the damsel in distress. Although screened in the white house by Woodrow Wilson, who described this film as “writing history with lightning” it also helped spark a resurgence in Klan membership and activity.
Which begs the question, should this film be considered essential viewing? I honestly feel it should be. Not just for someone studying film, or potential filmmakers either. The Birth Of A Nation offers us a glimpse, into the mindset of a time long gone for over a century. It’s a turning point for film technique, as well as the foundation for narrative storytelling. This, and films such as Triumph Of The Will, have content that will always be disagreeable, as well as despicable. Despite their content however, they remain examples of what film can accomplish. Not to mention, how far we have progressed in the years since its’ release.