Blog Directory CineVerse: Controversy, thy name is Griffith

Controversy, thy name is Griffith

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"The Birth of a Nation" is not an easy film to watch in 2014 or any other year. But our film group took up the challenge of exploring this firebrand of a feature film to try to see what makes it tick--and the answer is clearly a very outdated, misguided and bigoted ideology that makes modern audiences cringe. Yet, despite its deplorably offensive content, "Birth" deserves to be recognized as a landmark motion picture achievement on many technical levels. Here's what CineVerse concluded post discussion:

·       It was the longest and most expensive movie ever made up to its time: most films were simple two- to three-reelers that lasted under 15 minutes. Thus, Birth of a Nation marked the dawn of the modern feature length film, signaling the end of the nickelodeon era.
·       It perfected the art of crosscutting and parallel action/editing in a sequence (e.g., the siege of the log cabin and the KKK’s coming to the rescue of its inhabitants), creating emotionally stirring montages of image and sound that increases suspense
·       Its moving camera techniques were revelatory and breathtaking to viewers: the film uses tracking shots, dolly shots and pans to create a kinetic energy of movement and action.
·       The film uses many close ups, a Griffith hallmark, to elicit an emotional reaction in viewers.
·       It employed multiple camera and used shots taken from many different angles.
·       It introduced night photography with the use of magnesium flares
·       It employed title cards that were more elaborate than those commonly used in this period
·       It extensively showcased natural outdoor settings and landscapes in its backgrounds instead of sets and soundstages
·       It used color tinting in many scenes for psychological or dramatic emphasis
·       It was one of the first to have an original score composed for an orchestra
·       The film also relies on panoramic long shots, fade-outs, iris effects, lap dissolves, high-angle shots, subtitles (different from title cards), and masked shots (in which part of the frame is blacked out to emphasize one or more objects)
·       The movie is impressive in its elaborately staged battle sequences, use of hundreds of extras and authentic costuming.
·       It was the first film to feature an intermission, advanced ticket sales, souvenir programs, costumed usherettes, modulated lighting, and special trains that would transport people from small mid-western, southern states to cities (soon theatres sprung up everywhere)
·       Additionally, this film established the director as the chief dominant power and visionary on a film, giving testament to the auteur theory.

·       It’s clearly biased in its agenda and viewpoint, without showing the viewpoint of the freed slaves or non-carpetbagging Northerners
·       It demonstrated the dangerous power of film as ideological propaganda
·       It revived the KKK in the South, which had been practically defunct prior to the film. In fact, the movie is still used today to help recruit new Klan members, according to Tim Dirks.
·       It promoted many African-American stereotypes that later films used, including the black buck, the mammy, the faithful servant, the black brute, etc.
·       It casts white actors in blackface to play African Americans and biracial characters and relegates real African American actors to the background with no major parts.
·       It uses some speech title cards in stereotypical slang vernacular attributed to African Americans.
·       Griffith capitalizes on the murky details of the Reconstruction era (much of the history of this period is gathered from oral histories, biased historians, and eyewitness testimonies) by blending fiction with fact: consider the scene where the black politicians louse about in the state legislature, take off their shoes and ogle white women.
·       The film adopts a documentary-like realism in its approach by creating compositions based on antique photos and paintings and uses title cards that say “Historical Facsimiles,” which lead the viewer to believe that what they’re seeing actually happened in reality, when often it did not. Consider again the House of Representatives scene, in which the African American politicians behave shamefully. This is prefaced by a “Historical Facsimile” titled “Riot in the Master’s Hall. The Negro Party in control of the State House of Representatives.” This is stated as being based on a photo, but it has been debunked as being staged based on lampooning newspaper cartoons.
·       White characters get the benefit of warmer and brighter lighting, lighter makeup, and use of white tones and symbols in the overall misc-en-scene.
·       The KKK is lionized through sweeping camera movement, tinted colors meant to express passion, honor and bravery, and stirring music.
·       Griffith uses parallel editing and crosscutting between two sets of characters and scenes happening simultaneously to his ideological advantage: think about how he cuts between a good/hero character and then a bad/villain character. The pattern and rhythm of this juxtaposition of images sets the two sets of characters as diametrically opposite. Viewers are conditioned to root for the good guys (loyal Southerners, Klansmen) and abhor the bad guys (freed slaves, carpetbaggers, scalawags).
·       Notice how white players are typically placed in the foreground to emphasize their importance and black characters are often situated in the background, demonstrating a hierarchy of power and significance.

·       Reconstruction and its aim of racial integration did not work, causing more harm than good.
·       The true golden age was the antebellum (pre-war) South, when blacks knew their place, prosperous, genteel families were able to maintain peace and order, and a time of chivalry, respect and proper social hierarchy was still in effect.
·       Relations between the races can be harmonious, provided that blacks don’t aspire to power or push true social equality.
·       African Americans given too much power and autonomy turn into sex-crazed beasts, violent savages and buffoons.
·       The worst villains of all are biracial peoples, who stand as an example of what happens when you combine Caucasian intelligence with inhuman ‘Negro’ qualities; in this way, Birth of a Nation is a cautionary tale that especially preaches against miscegeny.

·       Many would think “Birth of a Nation” would be a more appropriate title for a film depicting the Revolutionary War, but Griffith wanted to suggest that the end of Reconstruction in the South was the true beginning of our modern nation. Writer Donato Totaro wrote: “For Griffith…the “nation” that he gives birth to is not the forward looking, industrial nation that won, but a nation where the white south and white north would be united together under the banner of white Christian Anglo-Saxon brotherhood. For Griffith the real nation was shaped by the counter-revolution of the white-south against the freed African-Americans and the white carpetbaggers.”

·       This is an important artifact of film history that is arguably the most influential picture of all time: it may be ugly, inaccurate and reprehensible, but it is a milestone motion picture, warts and all.
·       It’s important that we never forget our past, including the way Hollywood made movies and promoted bigoted viewpoints and practices long ago. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we may be doomed to repeat it.
·       However, this film serves as a testament to the seductive power of cinema and its capacity to stir emotions, change opinions and rally people to evil causes.
·       It espouses a racist viewpoint that could influence impressionable viewers, and many people who see it for the first time today may mistakenly think it is historically accurate (especially the Reconstruction scenes, which are fictional).
·       It still has the power to offend and anger African Americans and whites alike, cause schisms and controversy, and evoke protests. For these and other reasons, some believe it should never be shown in public again.

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