Birth of a Nation: the Cinematic Portrayal of Ku Klux Klan Horrors

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After watching The Birth of Nation, I couldn’t make my mind about how I feel about this movie. Although The Birth of Nation was made more that one hundred years ago it still has the power to both captivate and horrify the viewer. This movie was such a success that it was the first movie to be screened at the White House. But there are other factors that made The Birth of Nation so revolutionary. Panoramic shots, night photography montage are some of them. As Armond White ones said «It’s the film that showed the world about the potential of cinema». Also, the narrative structure that has been used in The Birth of Nation is still being copied by Hollywood cinematography. On the other hand, while assessing this movie we cannot skip the aspect of racism.

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“The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule” — this is the title card from The Birth Of A Nation. Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded in 1866 and its main purpose was to reestablish the white supremacy through extreme violence towards immigrants, Jews and black people. However in The Birth of Nation movie Ku Klux Klan is portrayed positively. And most people nowadays, believe that this movie is not racist, because it portrays the history of the South. The current president of The United states, Donald J. Trump thinks the same: “Our ancestors trounced an empire, tamed a continent, and triumphed over the worst evils in history… We are not going to apologize for America. We are going to stand up for America.” —  May 25th, 2018.

“The Birth of a Nation,” which is considered to be a landmark in Hollywood’s cinematography. The movie was so popular that it was also the subject of protest by various organizations and critiqued by clergymen and editorialists. The reason for protests and harsh critiques is that “The Birth of a Nation” impacted violence against blacks in many cities. That is why I do not understand why some people believe this movie is giving the right message of what life looked like back then.

Problematically, “The Birth of a Nation” is also thought to be an original work of art—in example, the movie is referred to as a cinematic realism, even though it was developed to pass lies off as reality. It’s hard not to think of the film’s influence as evidence of corruption of realism portrayed in the movie— but it’s even more interesting to acknowledge the disconnection between its beauty and its injustice and lies. The movie’s falsified events shouldn’t lead anyone watching it to deny or question the historical facts of slavery, racism and Reconstruction. However, they also shouldn’t lead to a denial of the unusual, disturbingly illustrious beauty of “Birth of a Nation,” even in its representation of immoral, wrong actions and its awareness of obvious propaganda.

Weirdly I’ve long understood why D.W. Griffith’s film is considered to be to be milestone in technical terms, in early cinema, blazing a trail so unexplored that almost all of the storytelling “mechanisms” we know and love today have been incorporated in “The Birth of Nation”. Such concepts as cross cutting between scenes that are happening simultaneously, as well as tracking shots, close ups, and massively staged battle sequences are often credited to Griffith as their inventor. I will say that personally I found the experience of this story to be quite fascinating and surprisingly comprehensible. Storytelling techniques utilized here felt very familiar and shockingly modern. For example, Griffith obviously has grandiosity in mind with the title of his film.

Dramatizations of key battles play as technical phenomenon of the film and Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as a fair conqueror who will deal selflessly with the defeated south. The first half of the film comes to an end with a dramatized sequence of Lincoln’s assassination and it’s quite gripping. In fact, while the first half of “The Birth Of A Nation” describes much in the way of institutional racism, propagating the concept of the “happy slave” among other problems, there’s nothing so consciously oblivious and false as the second part of the film. After Lincoln’s assassination, the film takes a much less historical approach and instead alters to a novel by Thomas Dixon “The Clansman”. In this half of the film, the northern Stoneman family becomes radical opponents on putting the noble South under the boot heels of the unforgiving black armies expanding their power after the elimination of slavery. The noble Camerons have no choice but to found the Ku Klux Klan to safe the south from these “rage-filled carpetbaggers” and robbing black soldiers. Ultimately attempting to promote an anti-war message, Griffith depicts a south so shattered by war and the controlling black man (empowered by politicians hell-bent on punishing the confederate states) that former Union and Confederate soldiers will group together under the white hoods of the Klan in order to bravely fight against the soldiers who would follow the South’s white women and corrupt the Aryan race. Truly, awful and bizarre to boot, “The Birth Of Nation” can be misunderstood as nothing less than modern propaganda interpreting a honorable South blessed by lightness and a violent animalistic gang of black soldiers and carpetbaggers who’ll stop at nothing to destroy the estate way of life and defile the holy families of the former slave owners.

All in all, “The Birth of Nation” is often recognized for reviving a dying KKK, there’s no doubt in my mind that the technical brilliance of “The Birth Of Nation” made a hateful and false grand chronicle demonstrated for wide audiences and stimulated an utterly sinful worldview that obliges white people to own none of their liability in the slave trade and unsuccessful reconstruction. It’s unbelievable to think how entirely this demonstrably false story infected the minds of people all across the south who witnessed this film as a modern, technically genius movie unlike anything they had ever seen before. 

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