The TIFF Bell Lightbox first screened Birth of a Nation appropriately enough on Veterans Day 2010, since the movie remembers and aims to convey that ‘war may be held in abhorrence,’ an inter title apparently removed in the film’s online public versions. They showed the George Eastman print. No blatant colour filters like the warm sepia tone in the DVD copy I rented. The DVD also shows the Lincoln or Northern scenes with a purplish tone as well as fires and deaths with a red filter with a bit of pink. Also, the Lightbox screened this with NO SOUND ACCOMPANIMENT. They’re showing it with sound next week called “Rebirth of a Nation.”
Writing every review or post isn’t easy, but writing about this movie feels like a monumental task. Half of this entry is probably gonna seem like an apology for the movie or a more erudite, example-filled wording of ‘but this film could have been MORE racist.’ The first parts I’ve seen of the film is the last scene between Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and the mulatto Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). I can argue that the scene, out of context, makes the depictions of both black and white races more even-handed – he IS capable of everything that white men are. I also I wanted to write said argument just to be contrary. However, I can’t call the rest of the movie even-handed. And of course, there’s the Ebert ‘we must deal with this‘ position.
The movie about the Civil War, the racial tensions during the Reconstruction while also telling the story of the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families – the latter eventually founding the Ku Klux Klan – depicts most of the black and ‘mulatto’ characters disparagingly but, pardon the cliché, not everything is black or white. The inter titles of the film’s first scene say that ‘The bringing of the African in America planted seeds of disunion.’ At least it shows that the problem is centuries older than the Abolitionist movement and the Civil War. It also recognizes the inevitability in presenting an ‘other’ into the dynamic of a certain civilization and if it didn’t create tensions in 1671, it might by 1871.
That little scene also uses real black extras just like the rest of the film, although yes, Siegmann and other credited mulatto and black characters are in blackface. The scenes depicting black people in both acts of the film are the most fascinating ones, like the scene showing the idyllic antebellum lives of the Camerons, living in harmony with their slaves. When the Camerons give the Stonemans a tour of the plantation, showing the slaves on a two-hour dinner on a twelve-hour workday, which would be nicer if they paid those people. That scene’s also reminiscent of Seth McFarlane’s depiction of the Mexican quarters in Mr. Pewterschmidt’s mansion. Anyway, there are also black extras cheering the Confederate soldiers and the Uncle Toms who stick around serving the Camerons in the second half during the Reconstruction including their Mammy whose blackface makes her look like she’s in drag.
Of course, the film lives up to its reputation by exaggerating its version of history and omitting certain factors that led to the Civil War. Apparently Lincoln wanted to enforce federal rule into the states, which is the official and diplomatic wording of the cause of the war. There’s also some bitterness in elections, a theme that would be carried out into the second act of the film. There’s also the omission of slavery and abolition’s role in the war and a pretty big omission at that. and don’t even get me started on the film’s second act, with an apocalyptic revisionist history of black people ‘taking over’ South Carolina.
The film also shows the North and the South were actually friendly in the antebellum, and I don’t know how to feel and process this alternative scenario. In the Stonemans’ visit to the Camerons, the tension between North and South is reduced to boyish horseplay that has its roots with a childlike level of xenophobia between two family friends, which isn’t good enough of a reason for two sides to go to war. During the war there are also moments of humanity and kindness between soldiers in combat, when the eldest son Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) brings a Unionist some water. We see both sides at the home front mourning the dead instead of being angry at their enemies. After the war, Elsie’s brother Philip asks her to take care of Ben, keeping in mind a friendship that might be mended between both sides.
Speaking of the home front, the film also shows women’s role and response during and after the war, and there’s a give and take in the positive and negative depictions of these female characters. The Cameron women are mostly conservative, having to sponsor the men’s war by giving up and selling their possessions. The ‘pet sister’ is also affected, and for some reason the war and even at the home invasions of the negro militia excites her. She expresses anger about the deaths and injuries of her three brothers. The film doesn’t explicitly say if she’s angry at the North, although she does take it out on her sister a bit. She gets her fire from her mother, who is brave enough to speak against a Unionist. The men again ask for their loyalty after the war, having to make costumes for the Klansmen and keep quiet about their brother’s involvement with the terrorist group. There’s also the eldest daughter, dead inside and incapable of love because of the war.
Elsie is more three-dimensional, thanks to Gish’s performance conveying personality. She has a sense of humour and uses that to hide her resentment of her brothers going to war. As a nurse she keeps the men in check while looking after and petitioning for the life of her favourite patient, Confederate Colonel Ben. When she finds out about her fiance Ben involvement with the Klan, there’s a mix of emotions and loyalties. Her desires for Ben quashed by her obedience towards her father, a wish to keep Ben out of trouble, an implied disapproval of violence. The film also depicts her naiveté especially as a war nurse facing wounded veterans and the monstrous lust of black men she eventually faces when she moves south to Piedmont – cough bullshit. I’m not sure if those are character flaws or just bad, biased writing.
The second part of the film’s reputation involves its narrative techniques and use of camera angles. I wouldn’t know how it revolutionized the art of filmmaking, since this is the oldest movie I’ve ever seen. Anyway, the camera angles show the spatial relationship between the characters and their mise-en-scene. The camera captures Ben on the right hand side of the screen facing the audience’s left side on a 45-degree angle, and the audience understand that the Camerons and the slaves, off-screen, are to his right and to the audience’s left. The camera is also placed either left or right of centre at Lincoln’s office, the hedges in the Stoneman estate or the pillars on a street in the Camerons’ city of Piedmont, efficiently expressing those spaces’ dimensions. There are also, occasionally, black spaces on-screen to focus on certain objects and faces without having to give them a close-up. Griffith’s inter titles are also very poetic like ‘While youth dances away, childhood and old age slumber,’ and minimal, letting the characters and the acting do most of the narration. Griffith’s films are my first silents, and for a longtime I considered minimal inter titles as a standard for a great silent film. Occasionally there are close-ups shown just after wide shots when certain characters are having a moment and it calls for a visual of their facial expressions, then going back to a wide shot to return to the general mood of the scene.
With the exception of a few shots, this film isn’t as visually awe-inspiring as it might have been perceived in its time. Its values, worldview and revisionist history doesn’t strike a chord with the mainstream movie watcher. The film insists that white men shouldn’t respect black people’s rights. It doesn’t even offer a solution but aggravation, showing the lack of willingness to learn on both sides. Nonetheless its reputation as an essential film for any movie geek to see persists. It shows, for one, the epic storytelling what Hollywood was capable of and will be capable of showing. We have to see it to know what the fuss is about, which side you think the film is on, which side you the viewer are on, and that the belief of the freedom of speech and expression means having to contend and preserve relics of past prejudices.
Birth of a Nation and “Rebirth of a Nation” are playing today and tomorrow at various times.