Birth of A Nation: A Glimpse at the Past

         D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Film entitled The Birth of a Nation is a shining example of a film that presents age-old dilemmas. To begin with, the film presents the dilemma of racism in the time of Civil War in the United States. The film was controversial at the time of its release and is still controversial today because of the stance it takes on racial issues. The heroes of the film are white supremacists. This makes it hard for one to identify with the protagonist and that is an important trait in filmmaking. The audience should feel sympathetic for the heroes and victims and feel distain towards the villains. The film also presents a very stereotyped image of an uneducated peasant black man as the villain, and the image is so absurd that it is almost comical to watch.

         It is not hard to see why this film could easily be ridiculed for being very politically incorrect and highly offensive. In the realm of film theory though, the dilemma is whether or not a film should be judged on its content if its breakthroughs in cinematic achievement are spectacular enough to overpower a negative message such as the racist one presented in this film. The film was revolutionary in its storytelling ability. In the Civil War scenes, the film does a good job of presenting both sides. One can imagine how much work went into the battle scenes, which are good but drag on a bit too long for audiences of today’s attention spans. The use of cutting back and forth between parallel story lines to enhance the sense of drama was a groundbreaking thing in cinema back in this time period.

         In response to whether or not a film should be judged on its content if it is groundbreaking in technical or storytelling abilities, one needs only to keep an open mind when viewing such films. In taking a look at the big picture of how this film opened up realms of filmmaking that may have brought us some of our favorite films, one can begin to appreciate a breakthrough film even if it has an inherently racist message.

Brian Schuldt

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