I knew it was coming. Sooner or later, I needed to see it. As the basis of all filmmaking, The Birth of a Nation is one of those films that is important to study and evaluate, even with the troubling subject matter.
In the film courses I’ve taken, the film was mentioned and discussed but with no visuals shown. It boiled down to “This is important but if you want more information, read the book and/or study his work on your own time.” So, I went to my library where I knew there was a copy. Preparing myself for a three-hour session, I sat down and opened the case to find a pink and white disc, an odd choice of colors for something so serious. This particular print, besides being distributed by a third party as the film is public domain, is one of the worst cases of DVD manufacturing. I’ll explain why later.
The first act was not bad but I had a hard time figuring out who was from which family. Sure, there were title cards in the beginning but the actors looked too similar to the point where I couldn’t distinguish one from the other. Name tags would have been a good idea.
An hour in, I paused the DVD for a brief intermission. When I returned, my DVD player had a hiccup and had to restart. Keep in mind this is a three hour movie. I access the scene selection menu, the only thing besides “Play”, and I find a glaring issue that should have been resolved before the release. There are only six chapters to choose from in a three-hour span. Who in their right mind thought 6 was enough? There should have been at least five or six times that amount with labels to boot. Nope. I had to guess where I left off and either spend a few minutes fast-forwarding or rewinding to where I paused. This would happen five more times throughout the movie.
Of course, there’s the second half that remains. The Klan comes in and saves the day as there is a brief parade at the end. I sat there in silence. Before I watched it, I knew that this movie was problematic today was because of the presence of the KKK. I must have skipped over the fact as to how they were praised at the end of the film and hailed as the saviors. No, just no.
This movie is one where it has not aged well due to the content. Yet at the same time, we cannot ignore what was captured. It’s a part of film history and that cannot be changed. I can’t imagine what it was like when it first premiered. It will be a long time before I sit down and watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, be prepared for three hours of challenging silent cinema.
1001 MYMSBYD selection
#44 on AFI Top 100 (1997)
400 Nominations for AFI Top 100 selection for 1997 and 2007