Monday, July 25, 2011

Hate and Propaganda in Lightning: D.W. Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)


One of the earliest American feature films (those with a story running in more than 6 reels of film, or about an hour in length) was David Wark Griffith's "The Birth of A Nation".  This film, three times the length of any other major American film of its time, was  a great technical and narrative achievement. It also sparked a firestorm, and did more than any other to show how the power of the new medium of film could be used to win more people over to a revisionist and one-sided view of history. 

Griffith was a Kentuckian, born in 1875, and from his family was taught the "Lost Cause" view of the Civil War, that the cause of the Confederacy had little to do with slavery and more a matter of pure honor.      He also learned that  the Reconstruction Era (1865-77) had been a disaster for the South, instead of a lost opportunity to lead blacks and white Americans into the beginning of an integrated society.


Instead of focusing on the failures of the Federal Government in not fully supporting educational and economic opportunities for free men and women, Griffith saw the period as one that led to subservience by blacks over whites in a way that was a grotesque distortion of the real suffering and continued oppression of "Aryans",  engendered by groups like the Klu Klux Klan. These terrorists were  the heroes of the second half of his film.    

This remarkable film was done by Charlotte Burger of Tufts University, New York. It is one of the best mini-documentaries I've found on the Internet lately. 


  1. How wonderful that America now has a Black President, not because he is black, but because so many people thought Obama was worthy of the task.

    Prejudices are awful. I was looking at sketches of certain shape faces. A receding chin labeled a person as mentally un-educational. Even features were a sign of intellectual prowess. Einstein must have sipped though the net somehow.:-)

    These early films were extremely well made, as was one of my favourites. "Alexandra Nevsky," they certainly stirred up strong feelings.

  2. Unfortunately, hate still prevails in the states. It takes the form of a strong undercurrent. Generally speaking, blacks hate whites and whites don't care for anyone that isn't of European decent. Evangelical Christians are the worst. There is not only racial bias, but religious infighting and efforts to re-write textbooks to exclude Darwin and Thomas Jefferson. Blacks in the South do by and large deserve to be poor, because most refuse to take advantage of free schooling. Political parties are strongly polarized. Essentially, the Republicans, purchased by the rich, want to adopt a feudal system. I was never much interested in politics until now. Though I kept a journal of Young Republican activities and interactions with congressmen at one time entitled "The Slag Heap." More than a single documentary could be made today on several different levels, some very subtle.

  3. "Birth of a Nation" is probably the most important film ever made in America, for a lot of reasons - first, it's a time-capsule of the mores of the early part of the twentieth century in the Southern United States and features in more than a few American History classes for that reason; second, it's used (believe it or not) as research-material for Civil War historians.

    The battle scenes in the first half were reenacted by a large number of veterans of the war - it's the only Civil War-set film which used senior officers from that war as technical consultants - as a result, those scenes are some of the most-accurate ever made.

  4. I'm afraid I never saw it, my interest when it comes to battles being centered on the WWII conflict in Europe, North Africa, and Russia. My ancestors on my mother's side served as high ranking officers on the winning side.My dad's ancestors were German mercenaries working for the British during the Revolutionary war. Have yet to discover what they did during the Civil War. Hopefully they were smart enough not to join the South because if the South didn't win early on, the industrialized North would and did crush them. Actually though the war isn't over. Even after all this time.

  5. I feel Obama's election and the general non-racial characterizations by partisans and opponents of his presidency are indeed positive signs for this nation, Cassandra.

    Not only is prejudice awful, which it is first and foremost, it is demeaning and draining to a nation. A part of Amercan culture at this time was saturated with "eugenics". It was a very popular pseudo-science on America, a creed which dwell-ed on facial and physical differences as indicators of intellect. Sadly, even progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt embraced some of these ideas. And the wider (i.e., white) culture in America generally accepted this in its entertainments until things slowly began to change after WWII.

    No question that "Birth of Nation" was well-made and innovative. The battle scenes of the Civil War in the first half of the film are emotional, sweeping and the camera work and montage are liberations from the stale staging techniques of DW Griffith's contemporaries. It's the second half of the film that the full-on nausea for a modern viewer sets in.

    Interestingly when America entered the First World War, Griffith and his film unit went overseas and were was given great leeway by the British and French governments to create his "Hearts of the World " (1918). He was allowed to visit the front lines, where like all other visitors was amazed at the carnage. Most of the film was shot back in England near Salisbury. That film and his epic of The French Revolution "Orphans of the Storm" (1922) were also successes and have some powerful scenes that hold up today.

    Interestingly Griffith seems to have hit a creative wall by around 1925 and his films were dismissed by critics more and more as old-fashioned. By 1930 he was in effect unemployable.

    Eisenstein of course was another genius. He picked up where Griffith left off and then some. Interesting that so many of the landmark dramas of that era, like "Battleship Potemkin" (1925) and "October" (1928) were, to use a Hollywood phrase, "message pictures".

  6. There is no question rasism still prevails, Stephen. I see it and hear it still as I'm sure you do.

    I agree there is a quality of feudalism to many of certain extremists groups on the right. They hide behind terms like "save our small businesses!" or "take our country back!" What they are wanting is a return to another Gilded Age of privledge, without a strong regulatory government, sacrifices only for the poor and the middle and working-clas people and a wink-wink attitude toward prejudices.

    Bad economic times do not make for good politics.

  7. I didn't know about the Civil War vets as consultants, Will. It brings me up short to realize that this movie we're discussing was made at a time when the Civil War was closer in time to the makers of "Birth of A Nation" than all the films and television dramas in the last fifteen year about World War II.

    This film and Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece "The General" (1927) are two of the most painstakingly accurate films ever made about the Civil War.

    Both Keaton and Griffith relied on photgraphs and records from the war to tell very different stories. Both used a "little man" in the Confederate Army as the chief protagonist. Keaton (wisely, if inaccurately ) depicted no slaves in his film (which was shot near Eugene, Oregon, by the way) but its so funny I really didn't think much about that the first couple of times I got to see it at a theater suring a silent films revival.

  8. "The General" is one of my absolute favorite films of all-time.

    (As I remember, it was filmed in Eugene because of the presence (at least, at the time - don't know if it's still there) of a VERY large wooden railroad-trestle. Oregon was the last state to maintain such structures; the 1972 film "Emperor of the North Pole" was filmed around Vernonia, Oregon - not far from Portland - for the same reason.)

  9. Your remark bring to mind William Faulkner's famous remark to the effect that the past is not prolouge and is still with us, or words to that effect.

    Interesting that know so much about your ancestors, Stpehen. I just found out recently from a geneologist friend and cousin of mine that I have an ancestor from east Tennessee who joined the Union Army as a mule driver around late 1863 after Sheridan and Sherman's forces moved into that area.

    Most of his letters back home have little to do with politics and mostly to do with the kids and making sure his wife got a good price if she sold their pigs or the family cows! He did say he wasn't a "copperhead" and supported Lincoln and his new vice-President Andrew Johnson, a Union Democrat. Beyond that, its all pretty mundane but honest letters of domestic concerns.

  10. Me too Will. I've been meaning one day soon to take a old California friend of mine (and fellow "Old Keatonian") up to the area around Cottage Grove, where I understand there are some landmarks and vestiges of the places where Keaton made the movie. He got the governor at the time to "lend him" a lot of the Oregon National Guard for his battle scenes.

    I didn't know that about "Emperor of the North". I'd like to see that one again, being it has such a fine cast (Lee Marvin, Ernie Borgnine, Jeff Bridges) and was made at a time when movies about hard times were not romaticized.

  11. Thanks for bringing this short documentary to my attention Doug, it makes a point that I strongly support myself, one that connects the media and popular culture which have created the very possibility of fascism, or extreme rightwing nationalism by the mesmerising images it portrays and the explicit and implicit values it inculcates.

    Fascism really is the ideology of the 20th century, although it had roots in earlier times it was the product of technology, modernism and scientific interest in the body politic.

    The cinema as a tool of mass persuasion has aided the flow of those ideas and it seems to me that Griffiths was a man of his time with very similar eugenic views to the American aristocracy, in both political and commercial spheres, the oligarchs and the political families than run America like a private fiefdom and for whom conflict is profit and influence and also because peace doesn't pay.

    It seems entirely fitting to me that Birth Of A Nation was the first film to be shown in the White House, where it runs and runs with only minor cosmetic adjustments like the current not entirely white president, or the woman that is to come to an Oval Office near you (and us all) quite soon perhaps?

    If fascism is just made for cinema is it equally true that cinema in the English speaking world and in many other places too is the perfect pre-television vehicle for fascism, racism and idiotic jingoism?

    Like Leni Riefenstahl's incredible cinematography it is very very good but also very very bad at the same time, or perhaps its not really bad, but just what we expect and happily deconstruct over here in the other place.

    The video demonstrated a bit of deconstructed history which shows in the deeply entrenched racist and class conscious elitism that exists in the corridors of power and is what is rotten to the core about late capitalist society I think.

    Thanks for sharing it Doug, a cheering clip indeed

  12. I have never seen the film Doug. And as Stephan and Cassandra have mentioned. It's ironic how Griffith seemingly had a merit of what he was presenting, I have never seen this - yet there as in many countries a prejudice that still does reside. I myself was so pleased to see the President being that of which was of the first of being one which was not the typical color if you will.

    "Instead of focusing on the failures of the Federal Government in not fully supporting educational and economic opportunities for free men and women, Griffith saw the period as one that led to subservience by blacks over whites in a way that was a grotesque distortion of the real suffering and continued oppression of "Aryans", engendered by groups like the Klu Klux Klan. These terrorists were the heroes of the second half of his film."

    I never payed much attention to those whom looked at people within what we call labels. Yet I never believed in segregation of the likes of extremists which have been in several lands. Even, Shin Finn never wished to be looked upon as terrorists especially after the attacks on America. Thus they ended the bombings right after 9/11. Some things do change and some don’t. I opt more within the areas of good change.

  13. Yes, you need a mass medium to create a mass movement like fascism, one that expects people to be overwhelmingly enthusiastic for an idealogy, rather than just being willing to live with it.

    That Griffith was amaster propagandist with his finger on a large part of the elite in America is beyond dispute to me. According to one book by the British film historian Kevin Brownlow, Griffith was was approached by the British government in the 1920's and sounded out on making a film in India about British benevolence and order there, to counter the struggle they were having with Gandhi and the Indian Nationals.

    Also interesting that Griffith made an anti-interventioist and pro-peace film ("Intolerence", 1916 ) then, when the US entered the Fiirst World War, he turned right around and "demonized the Hun" for "Hearts of the World". So there is a sense he could literally serve up what was called for (by the public or the elites or both will leave to more research).

    It is an interesting movie to deconstruct, just as Riefenstahl's films like "Olympia" seem beautiful to the eye but disturbing in the way they evoke primative emotions with visuals that are meant to sway the mind as much as the emotions.

    The only good I saw coming out of the documentary for American culture at that time was the coverage given to the dissenting forces like the NAACP which protested this celluoid carnival of hatred, and were ignited in memvership numbers by the film and forced distributors to either cancel it or, in the case of a 1922 re-release, force cuts to be made in the film. Even Woodrow Wilson backed off the initial positive remarks he made about the film, seeing he had gone too far.

    Odd that Griffith played wounded when he accusd these groups of censorship. What was he expecting I wonder?

    Thanks AA.

  14. Yes, I agree there are positive changes, Jack. They seem to come quite slowly, though, and one day we wake up and take for granted just how much the culture has changed. Others, however, stubbornly cling to the past and remind us of our shame as a nation.

  15. Every nation has faced something but this is one which I find does bring about the thoughts and I still believe that within all of this there can be a good change, mind these right now are times whereby history is within the making perhaps there is a something from which does give way as I have never indulged within the future meaning of Unites States as much as I have of recent. That is not to say that there are not great people. It's just as you say and we lived on terms of which contained hope, integrity, and many declarations of something which is new. I have been looking through all the stations to see if Obama has or has not addressed the nation. There is a great book entitled, The Gift of Fear - it's a very worthy read.
    Doug you have the best handle so much of this in an unbiased manner.

  16. I am wondering if the majority of people of the United States are capable of a great secular awakening to the levers of fear that have been used against ordinary Americans for too long.

    Fear of government. Fear of "foreign ideas" like health care for all. Fear of raising taxes on those who have had great benefits from the economy. Fear of asking a revitalized investment sector to help out Main Street for a change, as Bill Maher suggested on CNN the other night.

    I'll have to look up "The Gift of Fear". Sounds interesting. Thanks Jack.