Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Cinematic Powderkeg: Views on "The Birth of a Nation"

Sigh... I knew I had a tough time ahead of me when I approached D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation." Not only is it three hours long, which I divided into two parts, but the film is forever condemned for one of the most blatant demonstrations of racism in the history of American Cinema.

Now this doesn't mean that the film isn't influential. The Civil War battle scenes, the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the final showdown at the cabin would all become archetypes for scenes of many other films to come. Roger Ebert wrote this in his essay for "The Birth of a Nation" in "The Great Movies II":

"He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or 'establishing') shots and various medium shots, close-ups, and inserts of details. ... Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story."

The story in this case is about two families: the Camerons from the South and the Stonemans from the North. Both of their families' offspring have a long history of friendship between each other despite different lifestyles. The sprawling narrative covers the details of the War era through Reconstruction. Personal stories such as the romance between Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) and Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) are depicted as well. Ultimately, however, the film's seminal importance in film history is overshadowed by its heroic depiction of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Beyond the shameful bigoted mindset of this movie, a lesson can still come through when you watch it. When the Civil War ended and Lincoln was killed, Reconstruction allowed full freedom to Blacks right off the bat. The problem ended up being that the government was being overcompensating to a group of people who didn't know how to be Americans. They were never taught. Most Blacks at the time were either uneducated transients owned by Southerners or born into bondage; that was their whole existence. Now with immediate free reign, unknowing masses turned into full-on anarchy, ripe for exploitation by an intelligent evil. That's why the Klan felt they were right, because they were trying to quell the situation by bringing the system back to the way it was, by way of fascism.

Why did the people who designed the Reconstruction never learn that it takes a while to build a broken society back from the ground up? Take when America began, for example. After when we were liberated from England in 1781, we began to form our own system of government which took the form of the Articles of Confederation. This turned out to be a disaster. So they regrouped five years later and came up with the Virginia Plan, which formed the basis for our Constitution, which became ratified a year later in 1787. As well as adding the Bill of Rights four years after that. From the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights, it took us 15 years to get America in a functioning order, and even though not perfect, the system still works.

As a result of Lincoln's assassination, history never saw, "With malice toward none and charity for all..." By hurrying up the process of getting the Blacks up to speed with the rest of the Union and the unwillingness of evil men to accept their new place in society, they were denied their full citizenship in America for another century; until the Civil Rights movement finally gave something back. See how the mistakes of a few people can affect the whole ball of wax? It's just as sad as the racism in this film.

No comments: