Research Paper: Birth of a Nation: Epic Storytelling

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Birth of a Nation: Epic Storytelling or Historical Blight?

Griffith's the Birth of a Nation may be the most divisive film in the history of American film-making. On the one hand, its overt racist message was so inflammatory that, even at the time of its release, people protested its message. The Ku Klux Klan saw an increase in membership after the release of the movie and continues to use it to recruit new members in modern times. Therefore, it is impossible to ignore the racism in the film and the impact that it had on American culture. At the same time, from the perspective of innovation in the film industry, the film is considered ground-breaking. Griffith incorporated a number of new elements into the film, and these discrete elements, as well as the way that he combined them in the film, introduced a new era in American filmmaking. To truly understand the importance of the film, one must be careful not to focus on its social importance to the exclusion of its position as a firm, while simultaneously being careful not to focus on Griffith's film-making innovation without acknowledging the cultural impact of the film.

The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, which was, historically, in the middle of the backlash from Reconstruction when the American South was emphasizing a Jim Crow system that would place African-Americans in a legally subservient position for another two generations. The film focused on two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, and follows them through the Civil War. The Stonemans are from the North and side with the Union, while the Camerons from the South side with the Confederacy. After the Union wins the war, Ben Cameron establishes the Ku Klux Klan). The film portrays the Klan as a heroic organization whose purpose is to protect white southerners, particularly white southern women, from the danger of a black-run south, specifically lustful advances by black males (Erickson, 2013). Griffith denied that he was a racist when he released the movie, although his original prints had called for shipping the black population to Liberia (Erickson, 2013).

Before exploring the social response to the release of the movie, it is important to examine the scenes that are considered the most racially prejudiced. First, Griffith uses a "series of intertitles (text on the screen), drawn from a History of the American People, published originally in 1902 by Woodrow Wilson, who in 1915 just happened to be president of the United States; Wilson's prose introduces the Reconstruction section of the film, making the rise of the Ku Klux Klan a positive good that resulted in the redemption of the white South from the ravages of Negro and Carpetbagger rule" (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2013). This suggests that the thoughts in this film were endorsed by the President, which may not have been a large misstatement, since Woodrow Wilson did have a private screening of the film while he was in the White House.

Second is a scene demonstrating Griffith contempt for blacks that may have been placed in positions of power. It is "a scene set in the South Carolina legislature in the early 1870s (introduced with an intertitle that suggests that what is to follow is drawn from "historic incidents"), which depicts newly elected black legislators lolling in their chairs, their feet bare, eating chicken and drinking whiskey, leering at white women in the visitors' gallery" (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2013). This suggested that no blacks were competent to be in leadership positions, a strong foundation of the Jim Crow system.

Next, there is a suggestion that the type of racism portrayed in the glorification of the Klan is somehow intrinsic to both whites and blacks. That is because, "a scene in which one of the film's white southern heroes witnesses a group of white children donning white bedsheets, inadvertently scaring several black children playing nearby, which provides him with "The Inspiration" for the Klan's infamous outfits" (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2013). Not only does this suggest that white children may be naturally biased against blacks, but also the idea that blacks were somehow scared of the white Klan costume because of its appearance, rather than because of the implied threat of violence that was automatically attached to the Klan uniform.

Finally, the film glorifies white violence against blacks. The villain in the film is an ex-slave named Gus, and the film portrays him making sexual advances on the younger sister of the film's protagonist. While the film portrays Gus as sexually predatory, it does not suggest that he is a rapist. However, the film contains "a scene of Klansmen, dressed in white sheets and astride horses, dumping the body of the character Gus, an African-American who they had killed for causing Flora, the little sister of the story's southern white protagonists, to hurl herself off a cliff" (Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2013). The message is that a black man making advances on a white woman is so disgusting that the rational response is suicide, which fed into ideals about racial purity.

Clearly, the film exacerbated existing racial tensions by emphasizing the idea that whites were somehow superior to blacks. Furthermore, some racist elements in the film existed outside of the storytelling. For example, all of the black main characters in the film were actually white actors in blackface, though Griffith used actual people of color to portray blacks in the background. The response to the film was voracious. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for protests of the movie in Los Angeles and New York, but the movie went on to become a blockbuster in its time. Its success may have been partially attributable to Griffith's cinematic innovations, but was probably largely due to the fact that the film appealed to the stereotypes that were already pervasive in America at that time.

When a film is so divisive, it may seem as if the appropriate thing to do is ignore that it was ever created. After all, there are thousands and thousands of great films by American film makers, what would the industry lose by allowing Birth of the Nation to fade into obscurity? The reality is that the industry might lose a lot. "Film scholars agree, however, that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history - it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date" (Dirks, 2013).

It is almost impossible to fully describe all of the new innovations that Griffith introduced in the film. While he gets much of the credit for these innovations, many of them should actually be credited to his cameraman, Billy Bitzer (Dirks, 2013). To a modern audience, many of these innovations will not seem spectacular, because they have become part of commonly used techniques in filmmaking. However, at the time, many of them were unknown in the industry, and the combination of multiple techniques was groundbreaking.

One of the remarkable things about the film is that it was not filmed in the manner of many fiction movies. In contrast, it is noted for looking very authentic, so that some may not have understood that it was not actually a documentary, but a work of fiction. In fact, it looks quite similar to the famous Brady Civil War photographs, so that it may have looked as if Griffith somehow incorporated actual footage or pictures from the war. One need only examine the continuing appeal of faux-documentary style films such as Paranormal Activity in order to understand what type of impact this storytelling device had on the film industry.

Keeping in mind that the film was part of the silent era, it is important to focus on how Griffith used title cards and subtitling in ways that differed from prior filmmakers. He used ornate title cards (Dirks, 2013). He also made "special use of subtitles graphically verbalizing imagery" (Dirks, 2013). It was also one of the first films to really introduce a sound element to the silent genre. That does not mean that people had not previously used sound in film, but Griffith was the first person to really create a soundtrack, by incorporating his "own original musical score written for an orchestra" (Dirks, 2013).

Furthermore, Griffith used a number of different film techniques in the film. The movie marked the introduction of night photography using magnesium flares (Dirks, 2013). The film was also one of the first ones to step outside of the tradition of inside sets, by using "outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds" (Dirks, 2013). He incorporated multiple… [END OF PREVIEW]

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