Via reader Walter, I came across this excellent review by Richard Brody of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Like him, I was both appalled at the racism of the film (especially in the second half that traced the events following the Civil War and dealt with the period known as the Reconstruction), while impressed with the way the filmmaker used techniques to manipulate the viewer. If you want to see a clear demonstration of the power of film as a propaganda weapon in skilled hands that can tug the viewer to sympathize with people and views that are abhorrent, this is the film to see.
As Brody says,
The movie, set mainly in a South Carolina town before and after the Civil War, depicts slavery in a halcyon light, presents blacks as good for little but subservient labor, and shows them, during Reconstruction, to have been goaded by the Radical Republicans into asserting an abusive dominion over Southern whites. It depicts freedmen as interested, above all, in intermarriage, indulging in legally sanctioned excess and vengeful violence mainly to coerce white women into sexual relations. It shows Southern whites forming the Ku Klux Klan to defend themselves against such abominations and to spur the “Aryan” cause overall. The movie asserts that the white-sheet-clad death squad served justice summarily and that, by denying blacks the right to vote and keeping them generally apart and subordinate, it restored order and civilization to the South.
The worst thing about “Birth of a Nation” is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love. And it’s that very conflict that renders the film all the more despicable, the experience of the film more of a torment—together with the acknowledgment that Griffith, whose short films for Biograph were already among the treasures of world cinema, yoked his mighty talent to the cause of hatred (which, still worse, he sincerely depicted as virtuous).
At the end, Brody discusses Django Unchained, saying that Quentin Tarantino seemed to have sought to create the counter-propaganda version of Griffith’s original but does not have the skill to pull it off.