The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still seen as a monumental film due to its innovation of filming techniques that are still used today. For example, one of D. W. Griffith’s key contributions was his pioneering use of “cross-cutting” to follow parallel lines of action. An early audience might have been confused by a film that showed first one group of characters, then another, then the first again, But Griffith successfully uses such a technique in a chase scene that is rarely not use in an action movie today. Besides “cross-cutting,” There are at less 16 other ways in which Griffith was an innovator, ranging from his night photography to his use of the iris shot and color tinting. Due to Griffith’s efforts, this is a film of great visual beauty and narrative power.
However, the movie is racist and unapologetic about its attitudes, which are those of a white Southerner, raised in the 19th century, unable to see African-Americans as fellow beings of worth and rights.
With that in mind, answer the following questions:
- Is it possible to separate the content from the filmcraft? If art should serve beauty and truth, can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies? Can we still find beauty in such an ugly past? Is it reasonably “okay” to enjoy viewing such art with such a message?
- Are there more recent films, TV shows, music, pieces of art that press against the same types of issues? If so, how do we/should we respond to them?
- Identify at least three specific moments in the film in which film craft is used to either deify the white “heroes” or demonize African American characters.
Use specific vocabulary and concepts we learned to describe what you’re seeing and intended effect on the viewer.