Birth of a Nation

You can't possibly review this movie without mentioning the absolute trip it is to realise that this is from the time of cinema's birthplace (not even modern cinema, all cinema), and all these people would have been long dead even before most of us were born.

D W Griffith was a quarter of United Artists (the studio created by some of the biggest stars of the day to thumb the noses at the emerging studio machinery of Hollywood) along with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Was he a racist? It's hard to say. How can you judge a film like this by 21st century sensibilities, let alone early 20th century ones? The only thing's for certain, none of the political correctness that informs every story about minorities or ethnics nowadays was even dreamed of. If this was the way a filmmaker told it, it was what people thought - that the rise of black freedom in America was a cancer to be put down by valiant white knights.

It also out-narrates most modern day movies as well, at three (fairly exhausting) hours long. Starting out chronicling the American civil war, it deals with several southern families and how they survived (or didn't). One of the technical achievements was an astounding battle sequence whose merits are plain even to a modern moviegoer bought up on Star Wars and Spielberg. How it must have struck audiences at the time can only be imagined.

After the war, the black movement gains momentum in the south, and Griffith seems to be telling the story about how half a country lived in terror of marauding gangs of blacks as if they were killer apes (and depicts them as such). One of the brothers from the war forms a collective based on white resistance where they don cloaks and headscarves, burn crosses and take revenge on black atrocity, and the Ku Klux Klan is born.

Whether Griffith was putting his beliefs on film - that the righteous white was right in standing up to the animalistic black - or he was just telling the story of America's first racial problem is probably lost in time, but the tone of the film suggests the former.

Also interesting in that it precedes even our idea of a silent film, where the picture cuts to a screen of dialogue. Whole scenes are enacted (silently, of course), with only the odd inkling of what's going by infrequent notation panels. You don't have a clue about the on screen details most of the time so you can actually watch the whole thing at about three times normal speed.

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