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 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