Released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation is a historical epic aiming to present the history of America from the Civil War to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, with a particular focus on race relations as slavery came to an end. It focuses on two families, one from the North and one from the South, and a young couple who fall in love in the middle of it all.
While infamously racist, through the film’s first act I was willing to entertain the possibility that the intention of the film was not to cast black people in a negative light, but to reflect history – and just happened to be made by people with an extremely racist view of events.
The first hour and a half focuses on the Civil War, shown through the lens of a white family whose three sons join the conflict for the South. True, the extensive use of blackface would certainly be considered racist noways, but this is also used in The Jazz Singer some 13 years later in a film which doesn’t have deliberately racist intentions. While uncomfortable to watch, it’s certainly possible that the film makers couldn’t see why it would be a problem.
The fact that the Civil War is shown from the perspective of the South is actually no different from Gone With the Wind, which is hailed as a masterpiece to this day. And there’s a significant amount of unintended pleasure to be gained from seeing the lives of the wealthy slave-drivers ruined by their insistence that an entire race of people should be subservient to them.
The battle scenes are of truly epic proportions, particularly notable compared to other films of the era. It keeps the suspense up and shows quite a staggering number of events over its more than three hours of running time. With numerous locations, large sets, crowds of extras and outdoor filming it’s an incredible undertaking. Text cards make claims to historical accuracy in set design, which is easy to believe, but it’s this claimed authenticity that makes the historical revisionism that follows even more problematic.
Mid-way through the film it explicitly claims not to be an attempt to reflect on races currently living in America. But then the second act begins and any possible fig leaf concealing the film makers’ racism vanishes.
It alleges that the blacks are enfranchised at the expense of the whites, and they then go on to dominate the South Carolina House of Representatives. Here they drink, jeer and put their feet on the desks. While the whites are never shown mistreating their slaves, the blacks are shown beating a black servant, who is then rescued by a noble white man. The leader of the black people, the presumably not accidentally-named Silas Lynch (George Seigmann, a white man) is “drunk on alcohol and power” and seeks to build a “black Empire” and forcibly marry a white woman. The message is clear: black men are a threat to white women and black political leaders are a threat to white society.
The black people with authority or a position of power are shown with lighter skin – like the prospect of a someone with black skin in this position is too much to contemplate. Events that never happened, with characters that never existed, are shown in historical locations among real-life people, and it’s this that makes the film even more insidious in its depiction.
Much like The Battleship Potemkin it’s a well made and pioneering film. The story is engaging in spite of its more than three hours of running time, although it’s hard to care about the romantic sub-plot given how overwhelming the racism is. It certainly raises questions about whether you can appreciate a piece of art even if it’s taking the side of an abhorrent cause.
But while The Battleship Potemkin is a soviet propaganda film, it’s also about a rebellion against a tsarist army and doesn’t seek to vilify any minorities. The Birth of a Nation and its creators appear to believe that peace can only be achieved if black people learn their place in servitude, and presents an argument for this position disguised as historical fact. It’s simultaneously more vile in its views and less honest in its presentation of them, making it much harder to excuse.
This is the most racist film I’ve seen, with the arguable exception of Der Erwige Jude. And considering that’s a Nazi propaganda film, this is really something to be ashamed of. In fact, The Birth of a Nation even makes reference to the “Aryan birthright”. Altogether it feels like a film about Kristallnacht shown from the perspective of the SA. It’s worth watching, though, for its historical importance, as a depiction of the extreme prejudice black people have faced in America. And given the recent surge in KKK membership, it’s depressingly relevant, since the horrors of racism are laid bare for all to see.
The Birth of a Nation is available free on YouTube