100 Films I Haven’t Seen: ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915 & 2016)

I apologize for the delay in this post. Partly it was due to me starting grad school, which has me spending a bit more time reading textbooks than watching movies I’ve never seen.

The other factor is that after the events of Charlottesville, I decided to bump up these two films that were already on my list. Since one of them is a three-hour, 15-minute silent film that spends a large portion of its runtime dehumanizing black people, the viewing didn’t exactly fly by. I’d spend 15 minutes here and there catching segments before I’d switch to something else. As a result, watching the entire film took a few weeks.

Moving forward, I’ll try to alternate my MSTing Links and 100 Films posts, while also doing my best to get my school work done. Since this writing is done for free and I’m paying an obscene amount to go to school, I feel like the latter should be my main priority.

Films 7 and 8: “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

My excuse for not seeing them: My parents showed me a lot of silent films as a kid, but understandably they weren’t in a rush to put a movie that presents the Ku Klux Klan as heroes in front of a little boy.

I’ve seen clips of the 1915 “Birth of a Nation” over the years, almost exclusively relating to the film’s heavy use of blackface. But I decided it was time to sit down and the film that Roger Ebert described by saying “Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.”

In 2016, Nate Parker wrote, directed and starred in “The Birth of a Nation,” which shares a title with the 1915 film, but little else. It tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, a historical oddity that has always interested me. When I saw the first preview for the film around last year’s Sundance, I was instantly intrigued. Fox paid a record $17.5 million for the film.

Then details came out about 1999 rape charges against Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a credit on the film. Parker was acquitted and Celestin was convicted but later had the conviction overturned on appeal.

The woman committed suicide in 2012. While addressing the controversy during promotion of the film, Parker made statements like “I don’t feel guilty” and “I think the definition of so many things have changed” in reference to consent.

I was in college at the same time as Parker, it’s not like it was a million years ago. The definition of consent was the same back then. Quickly, the new “Birth of a Nation,” which had seemed so promising, felt like a poisoned chalice. I passed on seeing the film.

Thoughts after watching them: “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is a mess, but from a filmmaking standpoint it’s an important mess. At the time, films were generally short, with fairly static sets. D.W Griffith created an epic, with a massive running time, big scenes with lots of actors, sweeping scenery, and new camera techniques.

But important is not the same as good. Scenes drag and drag. Griffith didn’t have a script, supposedly just describing the action he wanted to his actors. For things like a battle scene, that works. For a quieter character moment between two people, it really doesn’t. The result is overlong scenes of mugging, where it’s clear the actor is thinking “Am I supposed to keep going? OK, I guess I’ll make the same gestures I just made over again.”

So it was experimental for what the medium could do at the time in terms of telling a story. People enjoy animals? What happens if we throw a dog into a scene with a cat? Nothing exciting? Eh, people will still watch it, it’s 1915!

Those are the kind of things that make “Birth of a Nation” important, but just because a film is historically important doesn’t make it the kind of thing that sticks with the general public for a century. That would be the racism, the thing that makes “Birth of a Nation” infamous.

The thing I was most familiar with about the original “Birth of a Nation” was the use of blackface to portray African Americans. But the odd part is when I paused large crowd shots, it was clear that there were actual black actors mixed in with white actors in blackface. It seems like that might have been an uncomfortable day of shooting.

Part of me feels like blackface is just an unfortunate part of film history, but the problems with “Birth of a Nation” run deeper than that. Sometimes the make-up on white actors looks like it probably would have been passable at the time. It’s by no means a good thing, but it looked like the make-up artist was at least trying to create a quasi-proximation of what could conceivably be a “believable” black person to 1915 America.

And then there are times where the actors look like Ebony White out of The Spirit. Cartoonishly oversized lips created by smearing white makeup around the actors’ mouths. It’s like if Linda Hunt’s Billy Kwan and Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi existed in the same film.

Also, the black legislators… it’s a scene designed to play on the worst fears of racists. Supposedly the KKK was using this footage into the 1970s for recruitment purposes.

In addition to racist portrayal of African Americans, the greatest sin of “Birth of a Nation” is its ties to the resurgence of the Klan. The original KKK didn’t last long after the Civil War, but it made a resurgence in the early 20th century. What to guess the year? 1915.

Let’s jump ahead to 2016’ s “Birth of a Nation.” I’m torn because it has elements of a good movie, and some great portions, but overall it just strikes me as a flat. There are strong performances, Parker among them. But other than a few moments of flair, the film feels flat visually. Parker was a first-time director, and it shows. Clearly, this was a passion project for Parker, but the passion all seems to be in the performance, with little in the way he captured that performance.

The real Nat Turner was said to have received a spiritual revelation that prompted him to rise up against his oppressors. But because generations of slavery, beatings, and murders apparently weren’t good enough motivation for a film, Parker added in a scene with no historical basis where Turner’s wife, Cherry, was brutally raped.

It’s not just a rewriting of Nat Turner’s history, it’s a rewriting of Parker’s own. Suddenly he gets to portray an avenging angel, taking up a righteous cause because the woman he loved was wronged. Between the historical inaccuracy and Parker’s past, it’s layers upon layers of wrong, letting Parker portray himself in a heroic light when reality (allegedly) says otherwise.

Sadly, Nat Turner’s life has not been portrayed many times in film. It was featured in an episode of “Roots,” but I hope that at some point a better (and less troubled) film will give this important piece of American history the gravity it deserves. Until then, I’d say the best version in recent pop culture has been Kyle Baker’s 2007 graphic novel “Nat Turner.”

Movies these films have inspired me to check out: “Birth of a Nation” director D.W. Griffith followed up that film the next year with “Intolerance,” a film looking at intolerance in four different eras, mostly religious intolerance. Griffith made it clear that the film was not meant to apologize for the racism in his earlier film, but to address the intolerance directed at him about “Birth of a Nation.” Yes, the “You need to be tolerant of my intolerance” argument is really that old. So screw him, I don’t have the desire to sit through another three and a half hour D.W. Griffith film.

But while researching this, I did discover Oscar Micheaux, one of the first black directors. In 1920 he directed “Within Our Gates,” said to be a response to Griffith’s film, dealing with lynchings and the revival of the Klan in then-contemporary America. It can be streamed for free from Archive.org, so I’ll try to get a viewing in sometime in the near future.

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