Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Birth Of A Nation

Writes Roger Ebert: He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.

These words by James Agee about D. W. Griffith are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic. On the other hand, the equally distinguished critic Andrew Sarris wrote about Griffith's masterpiece: "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."

Here are two more quotations about the film:

"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing it at a White House screening. The words are quoted onscreen at the beginning of most prints of the film.

"...the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."--Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the NAACP, which protested against the film's blackface villains and heroic Ku Klux Klanners.

Nobody seems to know the source of the Wilson quote, which is cited in every discussion of the film. Not dear Lillian Gish, whose "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me" is a touchingly affectionate and yet clear-eyed memoir a man she always called "Mister" and clearly loved. And not Richard Schickel, whose "D. W. Griffith: An American Life" is a great biography. Certainly the quote is suspiciously similar to Coleridge's famous comment about the acting of Edmund Kean ("like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”).

My guess is that Wilson said something like it in private, and found it prudent to deny when progressive editorialists attacked the film. Certainly "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.

Cited until the 1960s as the greatest American film, "Birth" is still praised as influential, ground-breaking and historically important, yes--but is it actually seen? Despite the release of an excellent DVD restoration from Kino, it is all but unwatched. More people may have seen Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916), made in atonement after the protests against "Birth." It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919) in the first Great Movies collection, but have only now arrived at "Birth of a Nation." I was avoiding it.

The Complete Review Here.

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