Note to the reader: Below you will see me get very irate. This is because I hate racism. If my comments seem unjustifiably angry, I apologize, but I needed to share my true feelings and be honest with you the reader.
I probably don’t need to tell most of you that this is a controversial film. For those who know nothing about it, I’ll tell you why. In 1914, silent film director D.W. Griffith was looking to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. Griffith, whose mother and father lived through the war (his father a former Confederate officer), showed a lot of sympathy toward the Old South that was lost in the war. He decided to make a movie, which would premiere in 1915, about the cause and effect of the war on the South.
Okay, fair enough. But then you look at what he used as his source material: The Clansman, the 1905 book and play by Thomas Dixon Jr. The book was the second of a trilogy featuring the Ku Klux Klan. Along with this movie, the series of novels helped to revitalize the organization in the early 20th century.
While I admire Griffith as a pioneering filmmaker, I make no pretensions to the fact that he was a racist son of a bitch. His family experience during and after the war gave him a bias view on the events and African Americans. Unfortunately, this led him to direct, produce, co-write, and edit a film that, while a colossal hit in its day (in fact the highest grossing film ever made until Gone with the Wind in 1939), has been criticized since day one as a highly revisionist, racist work that villainizes blacks and glorifies the Klan. I am sorry to say the film’s infamous status is not unfounded and what you will see in the 190 minute run time is uncomfortable and disgusting to say the least. Despite that, the movie has garnered much praise for its massive production and its use of filming techniques still used to this day.
But what’s even the story of this movie that’s received so much praise and scorn over the past 100 years? Well, it’s 1861. American is preparing to plunge into what would be a long and hard 4 year war. When we begin, however, things are okay and we’re treated to the meeting up of two families: the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. The Stonemans comprise of the patriarch Austin Stoneman (played by Ralph Lewis), an abolitionist congressman; his two sons; and Elsie (played by Lillian Gish). The Camerons primarily consist of two daughters, Margaret and Flora (as played by Miriam Cooper and Mae Marsh), and three sons, the most important being Ben (played by Henry B. Walthall). Ben becomes a colonel for the Confederacy during the Civil War and is the founding member of the KKK. The older of the two Stoneman boys, Phil (played by Elmer Clifton) falls in love with Margaret and, at the same time, Ben and Elsie are slowly forming a romantic relationship. After the war, Stoneman (now one of the most powerful men in the nation due to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), works with Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) to give blacks more power in the South. They want blacks to be seen as equals to whites that can hold powerful legal, military, and government positions. They may be taking this goal too far as they are intent to show up and dethrone the former powerful white southern men in the process. We learn that Lynch, who doesn’t seem quite right in the head, has evil plans for the blacks (who, with their new found freedom, are violent and corrupt) usurping the whites in the South. Therefore it is up to Ben and the newly formed KKK to protect the South and its people from these men who seem hellbent on destroying it and its morals.
What you should know right off the bat is the mind, logic, and in movie history of this picture is on the level of a conspiracy nut or a strongly prejudiced individual. You can probably understand the latter but I will be elaborating on both as we go. First of all, this film seems to be under the pretension that the slaves were a-okay with being owned as they are portrayed as perfectly happy before the war and reluctant to leave their positions after. Secondly, the Republicans apparently pushed for blacks to vote because they were so determined to stay in power and they knew they’d get the black vote. Third and lastly, and this is where Griffith completely loses it, Lynch’s plan, it is revealed, is to “put the white South under the heal of the black South.” Near the end of the film, when the violent black militia are filling the streets while they hurt, kill, and tar and feather the townspeople, Lynch says this to Elsie, “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.” So, the Klan then rides in to protect the people, ideals, and government of the South, which is being overrun, corrupted, and destroyed by the destructive and anarchic blacks.
My retort: what planet do you live on Griffith?! I mean really? “With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side”? This is beyond ridiculous. This is beyond stupid. It’s diluted and crazy and so far from reality you’d almost think this was a parody. It’s along the same lines as homophobes who think homosexuals are horrible monsters wearing human skin. I just can’t believe you’d be so insane to write that intertitle and take it seriously, Griffith! It’s a dumb, racist, revisionist point of view doled out to give justification to the KKK’s acts of violence.
The movie is trying to give us all these reasons why the South was simply misunderstood and was the real victim. It tries to make the North out to be this big corrupt villain that was merely using the blacks to its own end while the South really cared about the blacks and treated them well. It ignores the fact that slaves were treated horribly, that blacks were treated unfairly in the voting booth to the extent that many of them couldn’t vote at all, and that the blacks and their white supporters were not in anyway, shape, or form trying to take over the South and create a “Black Empire.” Was the South treated unfairly after the war? At times, yes. Should they have been allowed to leave the Union in the first place? Yes. Was slavery still wrong? Yes! Does forcing the South back into the Union suddenly make the South a helpless victim that did nothing wrong and that had the best wishes of African Americans in mind? NO!
Griffith, you can’t make supporters of slavery and the KKK sympathetic. You can’t. You also can’t make black sympathizers that aren’t Southerners into these horrific monsters who only want power. You definitely can’t convince me that the Klan needed to rise up to stop ‘the black menace’ because African Americans are naturally corrupt and violent. You’re not lamenting a lost treasure of American culture (the Old South). You’re supporting some racist a-holes who thought blacks were inferior and should be segregated from whites.
*Takes deep breath*
But just for the moment let’s ignore all that. Let’s ignore that Dixon, Griffith, and this movie are incredibly and unbelievably racist in every detail. Let’s, for a second, examine this as a movie. Some critics say the first half of the movie, which deals with the lead up to the war, the war itself, and assassination of Lincoln, isn’t that bad. It’s not until the second half, where we witness Reconstruction, that the truly racist and despicable aspects of this movie come forth. Minus the countless white actors in blackface, I would say this is mostly true. Unfortunately, I found this section to be a real bore due to the characters not being sharply drawn or well-defined. Later we get a better idea of who they are and what they’re like, but that’s not until the second-half of the film. Until then, their struggles, injuries, sacrifices, and deaths in the war don’t effect me much because I’m not connected to the characters emotionally. The battle scenes also underwhelmed for the same reason. The action is chaotic and people are dying all around. It’s not thrilling or sad due to the poor shooting of the battles (which I didn’t think would be the case going into this flick) and the lack of character investment. To be fair, I may be so negative on the first-half because I kept pausing the film, which took me out of the momentum and emotion of the character and events. If I took another stab at the movie, I might be more generous.
The Reconstruction section of the picture is impossible to separate from the racism since the prejudices are so ingrained in the plot by that point. All I can say is the second-half, the climax in particular, left me with no one to root for on either side. Our villains are terribly false caricatures of blacks and their supporters, and our so-called heroes are extreme racists.
Then there’s the story as a whole. It’s stretched too far and I feel it could’ve been reduced by an hour easily to reduce all the drag.
So on practically every level this film is a failure. I didn’t even enjoy it on a technical level, which is where I thought I’d derive all my enjoyment. All the technical end stuff wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be; the story, characters, and theme are terrible; and the racism, and the bizarre logic it inspires, is downright appalling and insulting to the intelligence of any bright minded individual. In short, it’s all just awful.
I knew I’d find this a tough watch, but I didn’t know it’d be this difficult. Except for a brief section or performance here and there, the film held no joy for me. In fact, I can’t actually remember the last time I hated a movie as much as I hate this one. I recognize it’s place in movie history and appreciate its technical and behind-the-scenes advancements, but as a film with a story, characters, and message, it is disgusting and awful. I’m watching Intolerance, Griffith’s follow-up to The Birth of a Nation, next week. I can only pray I have a better experience with it.