The Birth of a Nation—director D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film masterpiece—is a racist piece of garbage.
The film, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Sunday, tells the story of two families during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. It is overtly pro-Confederacy. It depicts black people as oppressing, raping psychos. It paints the Ku Klux Klan as a liberation army. The KKK used the box-office smash to recruit scores of new members, and the movie allegedly inspired real-life lynchings. The NAACP campaigned in 1915 to ban the picture.
And yet, The Birth of a Nation is undeniably one of the most important and greatest American films ever produced.
“The worst thing about ‘Birth of a Nation’ is how good it is,” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote in 2013. “’Birth of a Nation’ is great, but not good,” Gregory Kane wrote in 1998, in a piece noting that the film is a “monumental embarrassment.”
Would The Birth of a Nation be so celebrated in polite society and in film schools had it been released today? Of course not. Modern debates over political correctness and dog whistles obviously wouldn’t translate to much Oscar buzz nowadays. But the truth of the matter is that so much of what we see and take for granted in movies today simply would not exist if it weren’t for this racist slab of filth.
Much of what historians and critics adore about Griffith’s work lies in the technical mastery and storytelling innovations. As a piece of epic American filmmaking, The Birth of a Nation was revolutionary. The very idea of using a close-up on a character’s face to convey emotional depth can be traced to this film. Griffith popularized the use of flashback in cinema. The color tinting, use of music, and panning camerawork are all extraordinary, particularly for the era. The scope of the battle sequences was unprecedented. And the deft blend of family drama and grand-scale historical narrative (however perverted) is outstanding.
“He was the first director to understand instinctively how a movie could mimic the human ability to scan an event quickly, noting details in the midst of the larger picture,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2003. “Many silent films moved slowly, as if afraid to get ahead of their audiences; Griffith springs forward eagerly, and the impact on his audiences was unprecedented; they were learning for the first time what a movie was capable of.”
Admiration for The Birth of a Nation (a bold title for a movie that now might as well be called “The Revitalization of Racialist Bloodlust”) is comparable to international acclaim for, say, Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 picture that just so happens to be a fascist propaganda flick about how the Nazis were awesome. (Triumph of the Will, for which Hitler was essentially a producer, was also lauded for its cinematic breakthroughs, such as the use of aerial shots.)
When the American Film Institute issued their list of the 100 best American movies in 1998,The Birth of a Nation sat comfortably at #44, beating out A Streetcar Named Desire, and slightly trailing King Kong. When the AFI top-100 was updated in 2007, Streetcar and King Kong remained, but The Birth of a Nation had been dropped from the list.
“I don’t know why it disappeared, but…in general, I would say that it’s the case of all top-10, top-100, top-whatever lists, as years go by, that older films can get knocked off,” Robert Birchard, film historian and editor at AFI, told The Daily Beast. Birchard said he wasn’t sure if the film was voted off due to its racist content, but he has a point about older movies: The Jazz Singer (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were also bumped from the updated rankings. (But new to AFI’s 2007 list, sitting at #49, was Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, which was in part a response to critics of his controversial masterwork from the year prior.)
Griffith himself said in an interview in 1941 that “because of the social progress which Negroes achieved” in the face of oppression, “it is best that The Birth of a Nation in its present form be withheld from public exhibition.”
Yes, The Birth of a Nation is a white-supremacist, historically illiterate disgrace. In spite of this, the film deserved, and even still deserves, to be placed so high on such a list. It also serves as a reminder that history and innovation, despite the desire on both the left and right to make it so, rarely comes neatly packaged and untainted, even when it comes to Hollywood filmmaking. It is hugely unfortunate that some of the world’s best and most influential art is hardly its most moral.