American Grotesqueries: Engaging with The Birth of a Nation in Times of Crisis

Watching The Birth of a Nation as George Floyd’s funeral unfolds on national news is just asking for an incendiary response, not only from the public, but from within the soul. There were several times when I felt so appalled, totally disgusted, tempted to just turn it off and return another time, maybe in like a decade. For a brief moment, my power even went out, as if a sign from the heavens. I had to face a few internal questions as I continued forward: Should I be doing this? Is this really the right thing to do right now? By the end, I was sold — sold not on the fact that watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is a dangerous idea, but that not watching The Birth of a Nation at this point in our nation’s time is actually the dangerous option. We can’t censor the past under any circumstances; we have to confront these kinds of things and, surely enough, time will be our great decider (and no, I’m not talking about Confederate statues — tear them down, please, with fury and might). In this case, time doesn’t do a thing. This is, tragically, as timeless a film as has ever been born from the cinematic expression, wholly and uniquely American in all its grotesque, reprehensible glory. 

It is categorically impossible to engage with Birth of a Nation in a truly positive sense, despite D.W. Griffith’s absolute genius. The irony runs red in the fact that this — this, of all the films out there — helped to establish our modern, matured cinematic language of sweeping camerawork, intimate close-ups, cross-cut parallel action sequences, and more. What’s alarming is that Birth of a Nation’s cultural contribution extends even further beyond the cinematic landscape and into the political sphere. In 1915, this was absurdly, radically popular, bringing in audiences in swaths unlike any film that came before it and rekindling the burning crosses of the KKK. One can’t simply defend it as a product of its time. Griffith knew exactly what he was doing in adapting Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel, The Clansman. At the same time that he was forging a new mode of storytelling, he was also provoking the masses with a deeply malicious intent. 

The film’s own popularity was boosted by Griffith’s outrage over the controversial reaction to his racist movie. “How dare the NAACP challenge my film?” he seems to ask, declaring in a title card at the beginning of the movie that censorship is not to be feared, as if those who tried to ban the film simply couldn’t handle the truth. What truth does Griffith propose, exactly? A foul defamation of history, attempting to recreate two eras of the American past — the Civil War and the Reconstruction, split in two by an incredible sequence featuring the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — placing them solely in the hands of soured Southern loss. 


Griffith twists and manipulates logic, situating Birth of a Nation’s message in an anti-war context, while seeking to declare war on the truth itself. Ku Klux Klan members are heroic in this setting, galloping in on horses to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to save white femininity from the degradation of the recently freed black savages. It’s hardly anything but antagonizing, unlike Griffith’s own gravesite, which sits just outside of the city in which I live on a long country road, modest and cozy in its simplicity when you visit it, but brooding an insidious notion just below the soil.

It is actually, perhaps, irresponsible not to approach this kind of material right now, given that it’s as prescient as ever. The irony behind Griffith’s opening title screed against “censorship” is that it’s the only subtextual notion from the film that should be embraced. Do not sweep something as ugly as this under a rug of revisionism, despite the fact that it tries to do the same. Do not be afraid of a film like this. Face it. Engage with it. Critique it. Unleash your anger and frustrations upon it. After all, as America slowly reveals itself as a failed experiment, one that might just be irredeemable and irreparable, it’s our job as cinephiles to trace back our own passions and see just exactly where things may have gone wrong in our own medium, to understand that even our most beloved pastime’s functional nature was founded on a ground of anti-blackness.

Tyler Harris is a film critic, English teacher, and former theater manager from Louisville, Kentucky. His passionate love for cinema keeps him in tune with his writing.

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