Good analysis of The Birth of a Nation

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.


  1. left0ver1under says

    It’s unfortunate that hate-filled propaganda and warmongering have been the things that popularized the media upon which they were made.

    -- “Birth Of A Nation” popularized film

    -- Martin Luther’s German bible and anti-jewish propaganda popularized Gutenberg’s printing press

    -- US planning for nuclear war led to the creation and popularization of the internet

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    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.

    It also shows how ineffective propaganda is unless the audience is predisposed to accept it. I saw it some years ago at the British National Film Theatre, very full, with a mainly middle-aged, middle-class white audience. There were gradual mutters of shock, a distinct gasp all over the cinema at a casual reference to a white “common Aryan heitage” and by the end the audience was booing and cheering the way Griffith’s original audiennces probably did, except they were booing Griffith’s heroes.
    There’s a grimly comic section in Josef Skvorecky’s novel The Engineer of huamn Souls where feminists discuss Leni Riefanstahl’s feminism without considering her nazism.

  3. TheVirginian says

    There is what I consider to be a good argument that even Griffith came to realize BOAN had gone too far, which is why he filmed “Intolerance” two years later, which offers an anti-hatred, anti-intolerance message. While the message was clumsily didactic (it’s been many years since I saw it, and at the time I might have been too young and cinema ignorant so that I overlooked some of the reasons critics applaud it), it did indirectly attack the message of BOAN. Too bad Griffith could not come up with a movie that showed how evil slavery was and how blacks had as much humanity as whites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *