Why You Shouldn’t Watch The Birth of a Nation (and why you should) | Brows Held High


How many film students
have seen this movie? Since it hit the first movie
theaters a little over a century ago, how many students have been
taught to admire the editing, admire the scale, admire the nail-biting final chase scene? Where a white family is beset on
all sides by bestial black soldiers played by white actors in blackface to be saved at the last
second by the film’s heroes, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The standard story goes that “Birth of a Nation”
was also the birth of the feature film that it set the standards
of Hollywood filmmaking, Hollywood’s storytelling
for the coming century. This film, which depicts Black America
as an existential threat to white America. Where a Black man played by a white actor attempts
to rape a white woman and drives her to suicide. Where this same Black man is lynched by white men
in white hoods, which is framed as heroic. This film, which inspired
a reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan and led to countless lynchings
of Black Americans in real life, *this* film is required viewing? David Wark Griffith’s three-hour
epic looms large in film history. It may seem like trying to teach that
history without “Birth of a Nation” is futile. But what if we try? Is it possible to rewrite film history? First a disclaimer: it’s a common fault when telling film history to give
credit to popularization rather than innovation. Innovation is the true driving
force of human artistic endeavor and often those who claim to innovate merely… popularize. This argument isn’t meant to erase the film nor pretend
it never happened, nor that it had the impact it did Rather, it’s meant to cut through the hype
and the press of the first blockbuster and recontextualize it. After all “Birth of a Nation” was a
masterpiece not only of filmmaking, but of hype. And this WAS hyped. Griffith played up the premiere. He hired the LA Philharmonic to perform
the score–unheard of at the time. And famously, It was the first film
to be screened at the White House. Though in some ways
that seems only natural. President Woodrow Wilson was
college buddies with Thomas Dixon who wrote the novel upon which
“Birth of a Nation” was based. And the film quotes directly from Wilson’s
“History of the American People.” President Wilson famously said of it: “It’s like writing history with lightning.” Hell of a pull quote if you
want to market your film. And even before “Birth,” Griffith proved himself
a master at hyping his own accomplishments. After spending five years
at the Biograph Company, Griffith put out an ad for himself in
the New York Dramatic Mirror, listing his many film credits
and several innovations of his. Included in the innovations which he introduced
and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers are: the large or close-up figures, distant views
as represented first in “Ramona,” the “switchback,” sustained
suspense, the “fade out,” and restraint in expression, raising
motion picture acting to the higher plane, which has won for it
recognition as a genuine art. There’s plenty in here that’s exaggerated. Especially that part about the close-up. It’s shockingly difficult to scan through Griffith’s early
work and come up with a single close-up. Edison shot what we
might call a close-up here. But credit for the close-up should really go to George Albert Smith, who used this shot of a kitten to
contrast with the wider view in 1903. And yes, we have been making cute cat
videos since the technology was available. The “switchback” or more commonly called “cross-
cutting,” usually gets attributed to Edwin S. Porter, who experimented with cutting from the interior action
of this rescue scene to its exterior action. The rest (from the fade
out to nuanced acting) um… It’s tough to say given the breadth of early filmmaking
and how much of it has been lost to history. But one thing he definitely didn’t
invent was the feature film. Here’s one from
Australia, dated 1906. Here’s one from
Italy, dated 1912. And from 1913, out of Sweden
is this film “Ingeborg Holm,” with bold staging and acting as nuanced
and delicate out of anything by Griffith. But if you really want to understand the magic and
melodrama of early filmmaking, look to the films of… D.W. Griffith. Not the big dumb racist action flicks, the shorter sleeker one-wheelers
that Griffith made for Biograph. These quick melodramas display
as much if not more innovations than his more famous three-hour hate crime. Sure, there’s plenty of Civil
War apologia on there, but if you’re curious watch “The Musketeers
of Pig Alley,” a proto-gangster film or watch “A Corner in Wheat,” which like “Birth of
a Nation” has parallel action and storytelling, but without bringing all the lines
of action together by the end. But it does end with a millionaire
being buried in wheat, so that’s cool. These were the two films that my
graduate programs screened for us and arguably it’s this period of Griffith’s
career which was truly worthy of studying. This is the period in which narrative
film really began to take shape. All “Birth of a Nation” did,
cinematically speaking, was take those same techniques and give
them a big budget with a cast of thousands. Admittedly, it’s tough to talk about
other directors of the time simply because so much work
from that era has been lost. The work of directors, men, women, countless films
made outside of the Hollywood system simply lost to time. And even that which survives
is often overlooked, so we miss out on
gems like “Cabiria,” or the films of this
woman, Lois Weber. How often do you hear film teachers gush
about her wildly inventive shot composition or her pioneering use of the split screen? But no. We all tend to focus on Griffith, and so Griffith’s work survives, and of course, “Birth of a Nation” survives. It was a huge hit after all and a huge controversy. The earliest incarnation of the NAACP
led boycotts against the film. A Boston publisher named William
Monroe Trotter led the charge, forming some of America’s first mass acts
of civil disobedience against the film, demanding tickets to see it in areas where it
wouldn’t be shown to non-white audiences. In the history of American film, Trotter, much more
than Griffith, deserves to have his name praised. As does Oscar Micheaux, the director of the earliest surviving film by an African-American, “Within Our Gates,” itself a direct
response to “Birth of a Nation,” the first shove in a long artistic
pushback against glorified hatred. A pushback that we’ve been
pushing for over a century. We keep showing “Birth of a Nation,”
even as we keep denouncing it. [Audience in film booing] Audience member: Oh! Those poor women! And here is why you should watch it. It’s easy to forget, or
rather, hard to remember that in 1915, the version of history displayed in “Birth of
a Nation” was accepted fact for white Americans, North and South. That such a hatred of Black America
burned so hot, so openly, for so many. The truly shocking thing about Griffith’s
racism was how normal it was at the time. The real accomplishment of Griffith was to capture every
hideous facet of white supremacist ideology on film. From it’s terrible psychosexual preoccupation with
Black male sexuality and fears of mixing the races, to its portrayal of Blacks in political
life as a threat to democracy showing some as either too
stupid to understand democracy or wily enough to bend the
law to their insatiable lusts. In this scene, newly elected Black
congressmen leer at white women as they pass legislation
legalizing interracial marriage. Even after the much-lauded chase
scene in the final beat of the movie, where merely the sight of Klansmen is enough
to send potential Black voters running scared and to know how many ways that the
American right-wing have tried to suppress the votes of American citizens, to see it practiced here with such naked
contempt for democracy and humanity is… eye-opening. “Birth of a Nation” SHOULD be remembered
not as a great piece of filmmaking, but as a document of normalized hatred, as the clearest expression of American
white supremacism in the 20th century. It should be remembered as the national
trauma which we’ve had to undergo, as the psychosis we’ve yet to eradicate. It should be remembered because generations of
Americans actually believed its hateful message. And on some level many still do. And that, as ugly as it sounds, is why you should watch it. ♪

100 Replies to “Why You Shouldn’t Watch The Birth of a Nation (and why you should) | Brows Held High”

  1. This just made me want to watch it. Not an advocate for racism but the film teaches us about the opinions of the time. Also factoring in DW Griffith was the son of a Confederate general.

  2. Your commentary concerning modern American racism would be better covered with more modern films such as American generation X

  3. So don't portray anything out of the realm of political correctness, because people can't tell the difference between history and current events.

    Check.

  4. On a related note…

    7:17

    I looked up William Monroe Trotter. Not only was he a Civil Disobedient Bad-Ass, but his FATHER, James Monroe Trotter was DECADES ahead of his time as well:

    -the first man of color to be promoted to lieutenant in the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Colored).

    – While serving in the Union Army, he protested the inequality of pay between blacks and whites.

    – In Boston he was the first man of color to be employed by the Post Office Department (now the U.S. Postal Service).

    And much more, taken from the wikipedia entry about his SON…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Monroe_Trotter

  5. The only issue I have with Criterion is their lacking for Latin American film. Like no Cinema Novo, I mean see Glauber Rocha's "Black God, White Devil" and tell me it doesn't have the artistic merit to compete with really anything Criterion offers currently.

  6. its a despicable page in history… but it's important to never forget. Dont try and erase it -lets learn from it.
    A sitting US president (a Democrat) screened and essentially endorsed… a KKK recruitment infomercial [propaganda]. Deal with it

  7. White actors in black face are just plain scary. The way it takes normal human features and just completely perverts them into something monstrous and uncanny. Then again, I wonder if that's the point. I've heard that all the major black roles in "Birth of a Nation" were played by actors in white face because he couldn't find any actually black actors, but I think at least part of the reason is just that this was how D.W. Griffith saw actual black people. They were something inhuman and grotesque to him, something that had to be feared and destroyed.

    I don't know how anybody could sit through this movie, even if it was as much of technological accomplishment as people say it is. It's terrifying on so many different levels.

  8. One only blindly believes the principles of this movie when they have been indoctrinated instead of taught our nations history. Having a sound base of history and understanding, I viewed this movie not as an outraged confused person but as a neutral party exploring everything about the movie. One must understand the certain realities of yesteryear and one must also realize no matter how sites like this or any place else tries to tell us we are in the same place as then, they are wrong and irresponsibly wrong at that. Our society is no where near where we have come from, not even close. Study the film technique, the lighting, sound, acting etc. but take it for what it is…a period epic based on loose truths or false truths promoted in the day. People shouldn’t have to actually tell you that.

  9. I'm a black male and in my opinion everyone should see this movie but In a documentary type break down way and there are a few documentaries on this movie. From a filmmaker stand point this film looks amazing🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️

  10. Probably the 2nd most infamous movie with only "Triumph of the Will" surpassing it in being more reviled.
    It has come to highlight the psychological fact of "Perception is Reality" and as media evolves from stories varying on who told it to things we can see and hear and in maybe later occurrences touch and smell they have a way of influencing our perception of events and the world around us. Because of this both consumption and critique of media has been given a higher responsibility in adhering to ethical standards, almost to a point of censorship. Between "Birth of a Nation" or "Song of the South" there is one movie that is clearly worse, yet it is the other movie that is suppressed for rather similar reasons. I don't believe film class needs to see these movies (my introduction film didn't require them) but I do believe because of the role they played in the darker parts of our history. These films might not been the most horrific displays in the name of public entertainment, in antiquity plays were sometimes a live execution of a slave to their toga wearing viewers. But the impressions film leaves on the audience has proven to be a more terrifying concept.

  11. "We do demand, as a matter of right, to show the dark side of wrong…"
    From the introduction to the film.
    Watching won't turn you into a racist. This film is an historical artifact that should not be consigned to some warehouse, never again to see the light of day. Watch and learn and stop being afraid of a movie.

  12. Reminder for those who don't know… The Democratic Party was consistently the "right wing" and "conservative" party pre-1930s. Today its the Republican Party who are "conservative" and "right wing". Kyle is not attacking any particular party with his admonishment of voter suppression. If you take offense to his words, you're likely just feeding into the hate so often associated with the party of tradition.

  13. Depends: when they showed us Triumph of the will, i learned that you NEVER film politicians from a low angle.

  14. Well, you SHOULD watch it precisely because of the horrible things it inspired, so we can all learn from it. Blinding yourself to it doesnt hel in any way

  15. the movies theme and message was horrible but we live in a free society, are you suggesting we would be beter off in a commuist polcie state?

  16. William Freidken, who I respect, said something odd, to me, about this flick. He basically seemed to be saying that Birth gets a bad rap, cuz the Klan was necessary after the Civil War to maintain order. What the fuck, Bill. But he didn't elaborate.

  17. I've seen clips of this film, in particular the scene where the whites imagine an all black congress, and what surprised me was that scattered throughout the actors in blackface there are real African American actors.

  18. We were shown this at Ithaca College, in an American Cinema course, but never taught to "admire" it. Our professors laid out some objective facts, like its technical innovations in American filmmaking, but never once did they refer to it in reverence. It was almost always a conversation of "They innovated film technology for all the wrong reasons, and that second part is infinitely more important in a scholarly setting" or something to that effect.

  19. Can you imagine someone patronizing you into not reading or watching something? I though we killed off that kind of shitstains.

  20. So glad I've rediscovered you after all these years, and that the great content I remember has only gotten better over time!

  21. Why is photo ID request racist again? Or why it is an indication of racism? I thought that this is just the way of identifying the potential voter as a citizen, no? So how does it illustrate the message of "suppressing the votes of american citizen"?

  22. Ive alway known this was really racist,Im not blind..now stop with the tedious sermonizing..you are just pushing this film to be more of an alt right counter culture symbol.

  23. Film student here. Never saw Birth of a Nation. If one must watch a DW Griffith epic than Intolerance fits the bill nicely and is much more palpable to modern day sensibilities.

  24. Recently there was a controversy at my alma mater film school about the display of a couple birth of a nation posters hanging in the hallway. It's been recently voted to take them down.

  25. But these hate crimes were acceptable in that day, which should tell us all something. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

  26. my intro to film history screened Potemkin as one of the earliest piece of cinema along with others that did not include The Birth of a Nation. Other excellent choices besides this hateful propaganda. Of course many of the earliest film were propaganda films, but none as vile as this one.

  27. I'm glad you pointed out the film's strange fixation on "miscegenation". It portrays fiendish black men deviously plotting to win themselves white brides. In actuality, most freedmen were desperate to get their own slave marriages validated and, while interracial marriage was in the cards as a symbolic climb to equality for some, it was bottom of the list for most black people.
    Ironically, more "miscegenation" happened during the Antebellum period, when children were being born to white fathers and enslaved black mothers.

  28. This film inspired Eisenstein,Welles,Kubrick etc so it is a cultural treasure even with it's controversial plot

  29. My friend, there is no time in all of recorded history, that everyone in any nation, all believed or accepted the same thing about anything, as regards Ideologies and Philosophies – and that includes Racism, which is an Ideology. Many people condemned Birth of a Nation after it was first released. These included both white people and black people. Also, many people applauded it.

  30. Something very important to notice in the film which Democrat President Woodrow Wilson, praised as a "Progressive," showed in the White House is that many Blacks were on the side of the South and were thankful that their Klan brethren had saved them from the evil Republicans during reconstruction. Things have not changed!

  31. I have a bachelor’s degree in animation and had to study a ton of films and now I’m working as a film-maker. I've never been ask to see this film and had no idea what it was about until today.

    This is only a guess, but I think there's a bigger push to watch this film in American film classes, than elsewhere in the world. And I’m not saying that with the intent to bring shame to anyone, and I understand why the film heavily emphasized in the US. After all it's an important (although be it horrible) piece of history

  32. i never knew you were taught to admire this film as art. surprising in itsself that your culture would still present this film publicly with any praise… but i guess this is still the america that made this film

  33. ive beestudying film and writing only a short time but i hear many things repeated. one that i heard first from you is the demarcation of ïnnovation over popularization" and i find it quite insightful

  34. you finished with exactly why i will watch it. i will hold my brow high and watch it in twenty minute sections like a mini series but i will watch it. i want to learn about the america i was never allowed to experience. the reason nobody ever suggested i read huckleberry finn as a boy, because the only Me in the book was named Jim. i was left out of so much that im learning is common knowledge and as an adult its my responsibility to find truth through unbiased honest research thank you.

    new sub here

  35. They were projecting this on the wall of a bar in Madrid one night I was there. I couldn't believe they would show it so casually. Seems to be a common thing in Spain, I also saw Pasolini's Salo projected onto a gallery wall in Barcelona. Not in a separate room with a warning of sensitive or disturbing material or anything. Nice for a family day out!

  36. This movie revived the KKK. That's all I need to know not watch it, that and the fact it's a 3 hour silent film.

  37. love love LOVE this video and the one on Triumph of the Will by Folding Ideas. Especially the alternative suggestions for film students to study!

  38. It continually amazes me how we're able to analyze real issues from the comfort of the past, or in fiction. But Kyle; If these things truly concern you, can we talk about how to deal appropriately with the problems of today today?
    Unarmed Blacks aren't getting shot in the back because of BoaN. Sandra Bland wasn't picked up & suicided because of it, Darren Wilson didn't fire wildly into a residential neighborhood because of it… I'm not saying it didn't affect people. In fact, I'm acknowledging that it DID!
    But if someone made a counter film against it in the 1910s, then race relations aren't improving.
    If you understand that psychology is at play here, then everything I have to say merely extends that concept beyond the effects of film.

    So we don't end up here in twenty years lamenting how it was then, with 'then' being now?

  39. Why is requiring an ID to vote racist? Don't you want to make sure the person voting is indeed a citizen of your country? Aren't you afraid of a bunch of Russian of Chinese agents meddling with you election?

  40. You risked your life to put this out even though I loath your ancestors I must at least respect your efforts

  41. I found a collection of Griffith's short films that were, I guess, supplements to Birth of a Nation. "In the Border States" was especially affecting and moving to me. Sad that so much talent and expertise was, ultimately, used to such awful ends.

  42. I finally watched it, there were no sound I struggled to pay attention, it didn't have enough action and the movie was boring, I have heard of the movie since I were a child, Curiosity hit me hard when I seen it on YouTube I can honestly say I'll never watch it again unless it's the remake lmao

  43. This film is both an example of great filmmaking and of racist propaganda. If a teacher is not able to present it as both and just focuses on its technical merits or its racism then they shouldn't take on the task.

  44. I think this may be the first time I've seen any substantial clips from this movie, probably for good reasons. It seriously took me until you mentioned it to realize that those were actors in blackface. I initially assumed they were wearing weird warpaint or had a mad max tan. Further, as I continued watching, I legitimately had trouble telling from the clips which actors were supposed to be black.

  45. A lot of this film wasn't wrong, a lot of Northern soldiers did into break into homes and loot them, and Reconstruction brought a lot of thieves, murderers and swindlers to Dixie, that's what the KKK was actually originally intended to combat.

  46. The slope is too slippery. We shouldn’t watch this, so we also shouldn’t read or watch Othello, since it largely hinges on wives being sexually subservient property to their husbands, and portrays a black Muslim as an easily fooled and short tempered murderer who slaughters his wife when he suspects her of infidelity despite being shown evidence to the contrary. It’s shitty logic. I enjoy many of your videos and hoped I would be proven wrong in watching the entire thing, but my assumption made in the first minute held true. There is nothing deeper to it no matter the mental gymnastics you force yourself through. You simply can not reconcile the artistic significance of the piece with its outdated values and morality. End of story as far as I’m concerned. Not your best work.

  47. "Birth of a Nation" is a major film and was ground breaking in many respects. Both those who care about film history, and the spineless snowflakes who pretend that they do, should watch this film. If you are a film buff, this film is mandatory.

  48. So a democrat applaud a racist as fuck movie?? Mmm interesting(btw i really mean it, no sarcasm, just in case😂)

  49. Racism in the time of when this film was released in 1915. Racism at that time was consider a normal standard for the average.

  50. Edwin S. Porter did not use cross cutting in the Life of an American Fireman, he actually had all the inside action finish up, then had the entire scene play again from the outside.

  51. DW Griffith is the film version of William Shakespeare. Just an overrated hack who’s only famous because his work survived.

  52. Canadian here; I saw this film when I took theatre in college. But I also saw it in high school American history class. Not, I hasten to point out, as a factual account of Reconstruction but as an example of how the Civil War and Reconstruction came to be seen in the white South and among conservatives in the 20th century. Also as an example of film as propaganda. And that's exactly how and why it should be seen in schools.

  53. I was always taught that the Kelly Gang was one of the first feature films- showing that the Aussie film industry has been there since the beginning.

    Also- it’s a really famous story here in Australia. I don’t think there’s a single Aussie over the age of 10 who doesn’t know the story of Ned Kelly.

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