Meet the Problematic Foundation of Film: D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”
Is CSU’s School of Film and Media Arts telling a revisionist history of America’s most controversial film?
Written by: Cara Robbins
Grand special effects portraying the “heroes'' of the Confederacy. A white woman feeling honor-bound to kill herself after being raped by a Black man. Gratutitous depictions of Black slaves being lynched, played by white actors in blackface. A massive army of Klansmen riding through town triumphantly. D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was a film that left a deep feeling of nausea in my stomach for hours after viewing it. As a film student at CSU who, as part of the study, has watched quite a few disturbing films, it is the only film to ever leave such a strong and lasting sense of disgust on me. Yet, within the film school, it is a movie that is brought up time and time again.
Its construction was so impactful that to this day it serves as the foundation for every film made since.
After all, “Birth of a Nation” is so vital to education (both within and outside film classes) because its effective crafting spurred massive social change. Its construction was so impactful that to this day it serves as the foundation for every film made since. It has shaped everything in filmmaking, including camera and production techniques, special effects standards, acceptable film length, shot construction and cinematography, story structure, editing and more. In this way, Griffith’s film has irreversibly embedded anti-Black racism deep within the process of filmmaking.
Its impact on the course of human history cannot be forgotten, either — during the height of its popularity, it became one of the most universally watched movies of all time, costing $110,000 to make (about $3 million today) and bringing in $15 million (about $142 million today). This is especially astounding considering the fact that during this time, watching movies — especially three-hour long epics — was not yet a common hobby or pastime for the everyday American.
Finding validation and the elevation of their ego within the film, white supremacists were able to rally forces together to reform the Ku Klux Klan . . .
Griffith’s film, unsurprisingly, also struck a chord with white supremacists across the country. Finding validation and the elevation of their ego within the film, white supremacists were able to rally forces together to reform the Ku Klux Klan, which had died down and become mostly dormant since Reconstruction. Thus, “Birth of a Nation” is almost single-handedly responsible for the KKK’s rebuilding and the subsequent terrorization of Black Americans.
Yet the emotions that I felt during and after watching the movie — shock, revulsion, shame, nausea, guilt — were privileged feelings. After all, I am a young white woman from a “respectable” family, precisely the demographic that Griffith’s film sought to protect and romanticize. My feelings of nausea and disgust did not come from self-preservational fear, but instead from the realization that my whiteness intrinsically connects me to Griffith’s driving theme of white superiority and solidarity. Griffith had made it clear that the film was made to benefit the future generations of the white race — and no matter how much I want to distance myself from it, I am part of that future generation.
I had completely forgotten to pay attention to the editing. I was too distracted by the overwhelming horror of Griffith’s film.
I dwelled in thoughts like these for a while after finishing the movie, staring at a blank Word document. I was supposed to discuss the historical, socio-political and economic conditions that inspired the movie. That wouldn’t be too hard. But I was also supposed to discuss the film’s use of parallel editing. I was drawing a blank. I had completely forgotten to pay attention to the editing. I was too distracted by the overwhelming horror of Griffith’s film.
Yet it’s not uncommon at CSU’s Film school to be faced with questions regarding the filmmaking technique behind Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” And though “Birth of a Nation” is taught in critical race theory and history classes at CSU as a significant event contributing to the solidifying of institutional racism in America, the same movie is taught in film schools as the prototype for film students to try and recreate — the very first “perfectly constructed” movie.
Filmmakers and textbooks are more than willing to admit that Griffith is racist, of course, but most tend to portray him less as a white supremacist whose relentless drive for racial purity drove him to making propaganda film, and more as a filmmaking genius with a rather shameful character flaw. One example is David A. Cook’s fifth edition of “A History of Narrative Film,” the textbook that CSU requires most film history classes to be based around. Majorly downplaying Griffith’s flaws, Cook writes that “Griffith was essentially a paradox. He was unquestionably the seminal genius of narrative cinema and its first great visionary artist, but he was also a provincial southern romantic with pretensions to high literary culture and a penchant for sentimentality and melodrama” — the only reference to his anti-Black sentiment hinted at in the vaguely dog-whistle phrase “southern romanticism.”
Cook also has a habit of redirecting attention away from Griffith’s violence towards Black people by emphasizing what he believes to be more important problems: “according to the Klan’s current leaders, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was used as a key instrument of recruitment and indoctrination well into the late 1960s. Less pernicious socially, but perhaps ultimately more destructive was the enormous financial success of the film, which seemed to valorize Hollywood’s taste for the emotional, sensational, and melodramatic.”
“Birth of a Nation” simply must be discussed in film classes at CSU. Its racist legacy cannot be forgotten — it has had a ripple effect on the structure of the industry. But is CSU’s approach to teaching the subject effective? Does it cause more harm than good, and does it also brush Griffith’s racism under the rug? The danger of showing Griffith’s piece in film analysis classes is in encouraging film students to approach it strictly with a technical, production-focused gaze. CSU’s approach permits students — particularly white students, who can easily distance themselves from race-based trauma — to separate the art from the artist, which simply cannot be done here. The film is self-reflective — Griffith’s personal history, ideology, and perspective are too ingrained in the film to be considered separately.
And if the film school teaches students to glorify filmmakers like Griffith, it may also inadvertently encourage them to reframe their concept of history to protect their glorification of figures like him.
Furthermore, the high and praising language that Cook’s textbooks (and some professors) use can also be problematic. Glorifying his work as one of the greatest films of all time, as Cook does, comes dangerously close to glorifying Griffith himself. And if the film school teaches students to glorify filmmakers like Griffith, it may also inadvertently encourage them to reframe their concept of history to protect their glorification of figures like him.
. . . his work is not revolutionary — he was an innovator, not an inventor.
Teaching Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” effectively is a difficult but necessary tightrope walk. CSU’s School of Film and Media Arts needs to balance practicality and sensitivity to teach the subject accurately, with an awareness towards students who are still suffering the generational consequences of Griffith’s contribution to systemic racism. Students must recognize the techniques that Griffith compiled and how his work inspired countless filmmakers over the next decades, while also understanding that his work is not revolutionary — he was an innovator, not an inventor. The techniques that he used can be found across countless films and pieces of art around his time period.
Above all, understanding and teaching Griffith’s film requires debate and discussion. CSU will need to listen to the voices of its students and professors, both those within the School of Film and Media Arts, and those from other departments.
In the words of famed film critic Roger Ebert, “‘Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil …It is a great film that advocates for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”