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TAG: THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Posts tagged ‘The Birth of a Nation’
November 24, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance
<i>Intolerance.</i> 1916. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist. Preserved with funding from the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

Intolerance. 1916. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from the artist. Preserved with funding from the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance on November 25 in Theater 2 and November 27 in Theater 3.

The humdrum life of a film archivist can occasionally be ameliorated by privileged moments. One of these was related to Intolerance (1916). Joseph Henabery (1888–1976) played Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and had a small part in the French story of Intolerance. In 1916, under D. W. Griffith’s tutelage, he began a career as a director. Unlike some Griffith protégés (John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh), he never rose above the status of journeyman, although he did get to work with Douglas Fairbanks, Dorothy Gish, and Rudolph Valentino; he wound up making training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Due to happy accident, Henabery’s real legacy lay elsewhere. When Griffith set out to recreate Babylon for Intolerance, he took a leaf from the book of Giovanni Pastrone, director of Cabiria (1914), doing serious research to ensure the authenticity of his recreation. Henabery was assigned to gather together photos and drawings of Babylonian buildings and art and compile them in a scrapbook for Griffith’s use. When Griffith’s papers were acquired by the museum by Iris Barry, the scrapbook was included. Henabery visited the Museum shortly before his death, and my colleagues and I had the pleasure of looking through his work of nearly sixty years earlier with him. The Babylonian set and the introductory crane shot that Griffith and cinematographer “Billy” Bitzer devised remain stunning. The movies had offered nothing like it before, and seldom had since. Read more

November 17, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

These notes accompany the screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation on November 18 and 19 in Theater 3, and on November 20 in Theater 2.

<i>The Birth of a Nation.</i> 1915. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from Progress Films. Restored with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation and the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund

The Birth of a Nation. 1915. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Acquired from Progress Films. Restored with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation and the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Fund


I have been struggling with The Birth of a Nation for nearly a half-century, since I first saw it as a teenager. On the one hand, it reaches the highest artistic plateau film had attained in its time, and it is probably, on balance, the most influential movie, in terms of technique, ever. On the other hand, it reeks of the conjugal evils of slavery and lethal white supremacy. How does one reconcile D. W. Griffith’s Leonardo-like genius with his sleazy acceptance of a worldview that is so shameful and repulsive? Can the excuses of slightly tempering the racism of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in his adaptation or of a nostalgic Confederate-soaked childhood be fully acceptable? How tolerable was this “blind spot”—as Atticus Finch termed racism in To Kill a Mockingbird—when it condoned the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan and helped start a new one in the twentieth century? And, does the film still matter as a social document? I would like to try to approach answers to these questions by begging your indulgence and recounting my personal journey (or journeys) as it relates to the film. Much of this will lie outside the scope of standard film history and criticism, but this is no ordinary film. Read more