On his blog at IndieWire, Peter Bogdanovich pays tribute to D.W. Griffith and his seminal masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, while contending with criticisms over the film’s racist depictions of life during and after the Civil War:
When The Birth of A Nation opened—-an independent film, the world’s first $2.00 screen attraction, the first three-hour epic and, in terms of attendance, the most successful movie ever made—-it was immediately greeted with a storm of controversy, considered by some white liberal and black groups as “a flagrant incitement to racial antagonism,” authorities being urged in several states to ban its exhibition.
Bogdanovich maintains that to deny the film it’s proper place in film history is to deny history itself: “Certainly it was not the fault of The Birth of A Nation that it took another nearly fifty years for the civil rights movement to start making big differences… As Robert Graves has pointed out, it is impossible not to be a part of your times, even if you are against them.”
Watch The Birth of a Nation on Fandor:
Bogdanovich goes on to account for the film’s racism as a by-product of Griffith’s upbringing among family and friends who had suffered under the post-war Reconstruction period and held deep resentments against Northerners and blacks alike. Bogdanovich credits Griffith for being responsive to criticism he received for his film:
Griffith was deeply shaken by the accusations of prejudice… As an answer to the outcry against The Birth of A Nation, Griffith put all the money he had earned into his next picture, a $2.5 million colossus (an unheard of cost for its time), Intolerance (1916), charting the course of prejudice through four ages of history from Babylonian times to the present.
Watch Intolerance on Fandor:
Bogdanovich points out that Griffith had already made an invaluable contribution to cinema even before making The Birth of a Nation:
In the seven years preceding, he made over 450 short films, which formed not only the essential alphabet, vocabulary and grammar of moviemaking, but were acknowledged as state of the art before there was an art.
Watch early shorts by D.W. Griffith on Fandor. The following video essay connects their relevance to the contemporary blockbuster Inception.
To see The Birth of A Nation today—-much of which remains remarkably affecting, like the battle sequences, the murder of Lincoln, the homecoming of the Southern colonel—-is all the better to witness afresh the terrible divisions that ravaged the country in the worst war of its history—-at a toll of 600,000 deaths—-the aftermath of which plagues us still. We can see as well how far we had to go, how far we have come, and how much farther we have yet to travel.
Find out about Bogdanovich’s own troubled career, and how he made the movie that put him among Hollywood’s elite directors, in George Hickenlooper’s intimate documentary Picture This: