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Two brothers, Phil and Ted Stoneman, visit their friends in Piedmont, South Carolina: the family Cameron. This friendship is affected by the Civil War, as the Stonemans and the Camerons must join up opposite armies. The consequences of the War in their lives are shown in connection to major historical events, like the development of the Civil War itself, Lincoln's assassination, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. Written by
Victor Munoz <email@example.com>
The following was listed in the opening credits: A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue - the same liberty that is conceeded to the art of the written word - that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. See more »
VISUALLY ENLIGHTENING AND SOCIALLY DISHEARTENING "BIRTH" STILL A 10.
D.W. Griffith's Civil War shorts were only a prelude to what has become one of the world's crowning cinematic achievements and one of its most painfully embarrassing moments concurrently.
To this day it still causes not only controversy but even verbal warfare amongst friends and critics. But if films were judged solely on their subject matter many of our classics would have been tossed into the garbage hamper. As being such, I will not let that taint my opinion of it.
"Birth of a Nation" succeeds on so many levels its difficult to find a place to start. Perhaps its best to say that Griffith may have considered what he may be starting hence the freedom of speech title screen at the beginning. For not shying away from controversy alone Griffith deserves his merits. His use of tinting is outstanding. Some may say (and they may be right) that Griffith is the father of the modern screenplay. His use of setup, turning point, confrontation, turning point, resolution, and conclusion is still the formula used today and is usually the formula that has graced every best picture winner at the Oscars ever since their 1927 beginnings. The catch: there was no written screenplay. Griffith made this film in his mind as he went along. THAT is genius.
The battle spectacle scenes were unequaled in their day. This wasn't another day's work. This was a big budget, Hollywood, parade of the extras, grand scale masterpiece. One gets the sense that the real war was just getting the war scenes filmed. Father of the close-up, father of the chase scene (on two fronts: individual after individual and group after group), father of showing synchronous events on two different stages, the buildup of dramatic climax, and the list goes on. Outstanding use of camera angles (the perch overlooking the valley during Sherman's march comes to mind here), and historically accurate enactments (Lincoln's assassination) score big as well. This was "Citizen Kane" a quarter of a century before there was a "Citizen Kane."
The acting is surprisingly very well done. Henry Walthall does a fine job as the star of the film but George Siegmann, Walter Long, and Ralph Lewis are three of the most villainous characters to ever grace a silent era film. And I would be amiss to not mention Lilian Gish who absolutely sizzles here. After all these years she is still one of the most charming and beautiful women I've ever seen in my life. Griffith obviously thought so as he used her in his other three masterpieces as well.
But for all of its cinematic showcasing, the film's image will forever be scarred by its outlandish racial prejudices. And make no mistake about it, its a difficult watch. As a white, its still difficult for me. As a black, I cannot imagine. It is so easy for me to sit here and say to separate its art from its viewpoint but that simply isn't realistic. Should it be required viewing? Yes. Would I blame any black for not wanting to watch it or hating it after seeing it? Absolutely not. I understand where you are coming from. The unfortunate thing is that the film could have succeeded without this viewpoint by simply making the south's new oppressors white union soldiers. It IS historically accurate to say that president Andrew Johnson did indeed want to crush the southern elite into oblivion after the war which is one of the things that led to his impeachment. But Johnson, who is strangely not even mentioned in the film following Lincoln's assassination, certainly would not have employed northern blacks to do the crushing. I understand the film was following Thomas Dixon's novel and play but to not even address how Ralph Lewis' senatorial powers overshadowed Johnson's presidential ones and those of Congress' 1866 Civil Rights Bill is proof enough that the film goes out of its way to make northern blacks the villains. Griffith's only defense, and it is a SMALL defense, is that southern blacks are still apparently our friends. Griffith was the son of a Confederate fighter which may explain some of his views. But certainly he did not want to be a hate-monger. He tried to apologize with the making of his next film, the masterpiece "Intolerance." He certainly had black friends on the set during the making of "Birth of a Nation" but this harks of the classic case of the good man who doesn't realize that some of the things he is saying are hurtful. I don't think it really dawned on him. This however is a trivial compensation at best.
But at the end of the day, D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" is still a landmark achievement not just in film but in popular culture. After its release film became a way of life for America instead of a treat you helped yourself to once in a while. Not until Hitchcock would a director ever again be the star of his own films, wielding a control and vision so unique that their name is forever welded to our memory, for the better or the worse. So many firsts. So much controversy. And controversy,ironically enough, has been Hollywood's middle name now for the last 50 years.
The nutshell: absolute required viewing for all things considered. Watch with caution and prepare to be disturbed. Not being able to watch it is easily understood. One of the 100 greatest films of all time...10/10.
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