Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Birth of a Nation


One of the best, and one of the worst, movies ever made. It’s always a shock to revisit this movie and see just how horrible it is. The very first shot is of African slaves on the auction block, and D.W. Griffith, that awful man, points to this as the roots of division, or something like that, and seems to be implying that it’s the slaves’ fault. He refers to “The Cause,” i.e., human slavery. (States’ Rights? Fuck that and the horse it rode in on. The Cause the South was fighting for was slavery, pure and simple, the right to buy and sell human beings with a brutality and lack of concern for—or even acknowledgement of—their humanity, in a way the world had seldom seen.) All the main slaves, the ones with names and roles to play, are in fact white people in blackface (and they look it, with the wide white Al Jolson spaces around their lips and their Caucasian features), as if D.W. could not conceive that a black person could actually act, or could not bring himself to work with a black actor. The black extras spend their time either happily picking cotton, dancing happy little jigs in their simple-minded way, leering lasciviously at white women, or plundering the South under the direction of their “scalawag” white Northern masters.
Yeah, Reconstruction was a bitch, and it sure could have been handled better—and probably would have been except for that evil, evil man, John Wilkes Booth. But when the downtrodden former ruling class don their white hoods and heroically ride to the rescue of white womanhood … you just gotta puke. You want to dig up D.W. Griffith and slap his corpse around a little, and piss in his grave.
And yet … and yet …
It is a masterpiece of cinema. To this day it has the power to move me.