Today is the 100th anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic Birth of a Nation, perhaps one of the most troubling films in the history of the medium. On the one hand, Birth of a Nation is one of the most significant visual works of all time; it was perhaps the first feature-length movie widely distributed across the country (to enormous monetary success) and cemented many of the common directing, editing, and cinematography techniques used in films today. On the other hand, it is deeply hateful and racist, a film the deifies the Ku Klux Klan and blames American unrest on miscegenation. The Daily Beast simultaneously called it “groundbreaking” and “a racist piece of garbage.” Its historical value is inarguable, but so is its bigotry.
What do you do with a film like Birth of a Nation?
This is a question that film writers are still actively struggling with. Rather than add our own thoughts, we’ll let critics do the talking. Three notable recent articles on the subject are:
- “At 100 years old, Birth Of A Nation remains a troubling contradiction” by The AV Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, which focuses more on the filmmaking aspects and its relation to modern cinema
- “The Birth of a Nation at 100: ‘Important, Innovative and Despicable'” by Brandeis University professor Tom Doherty
- “Why No One Is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film” by Vulture’s Godfrey Cheshire, which tells the historical context of the film’s release and success
There’s a lot to say on this somewhat inconvenient anniversary. At the very least, it gives us an opportunity to relish in the fact that film has seemed to grow beyond this moment.