The Opal Gates of Death

A young white woman flees from a newly-raised captain in the black militia. Gus says he just wants to marry young Flora Cameron, but she flees like there is much more at stake. He advances like a predator, and finding herself cornered, Flora jumps off a cliff in an effort to preserve her virtue. It is the time of the Reconstruction, when civil order in the southern states has been tossed on its head. This scene from The Birth of a Nation is one which reveals far more about the minds behind the film than this period of time.

People have said (and written) a lot about the unfortunate significance of this film. I'll leave the technical achievements to others, as I don't really have enough knowledge of early film to do anything but rephrase what others have said elsewhere. For those who haven't picked up on this, Griffith pioneered an astonishing number of techniques that had never been seen before, and are still in use today. It is quite arguable that Birth of a Nation is the most technically influencial film ever.

The story is sentimental, following two families from the supposedly idyllic days before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. The Stonemans are from the North, and the Camerons the South. They are friendly, but we get the expected division between them from the hostilities. They experience tragedies of war, and then must cope with the fallout. The plot becomes a little loose toward the end, centering on one view of the wrongs wrought on the South, and not quite as much on the families.

The film is formally split into two parts - the war, and the aftermath of reconstruction, but I would go further to call the rise of the Klan the third section of the film.

Yes, the racism is right up front. The black people in this film are made to be either stupid, mean, creepy, or downright evil and manipulative. I have little doubt that many (but not all) of the sorts of things that support the film's racist foundations are similar to actual experiences in the South. The myopia involved in feeling superior and right about something leaves out all the wrongs committed in the other direction. Many white Southerners felt wronged (and many still do) by Reconstruction, and the film reflects that. It's too bad we didn't have many black people in a position to document their perspective on film - I'm sure they could have put some actors in whiteface if necessary.

The Ride of the Valkyries as the Klan rides in to the rescue? How appropriate that Wagner's racism is referenced in this film. I doubt it was intentional, but even as a coincidence, it's entirely too appropriate for such a slanted perspective.

The film promotes tactics of intimidation, and a tit-for-tat attitude which is at odds with its supposed anti-war stance, as revealed in one of the first title cards. The final rescue scenes celebrate battle for the sake of a good cause. The sentiment in the first part of the film is merely a convenient way to place the blame elsewhere.

Still, there are a few deep ideas in here, some of which are still debatable today. The title refers to the fact that the Civil War put an end to the pretense of the US being a collection of sovereign states, bringing forth a strong federal government. This was something the south strongly objected to, many people believing the states should be free to decide issues for themselves. Such feelings linger in the south to this day.

The issue of "state's rights" is an interesting one, but I find that many people debating the concept hold a position most favorable to their own pet cause. If their home state is in favor of something unpopular nationally, they push the direction most appropriate. Consider the polar opposites of gay marriage and abortion restrictions - those working toward change push through on a local level, while those supporting the status quo look toward federal solutions.

Before I turn this into a political essay - though that may simply be unavoidable with this one - let's get back to the film.

Putting a rating on a film such as this is difficult in a number of respects. The line between subjectivity and objectivity blurs when a historical context comes into play. Sure, Birth of a Nation was the first significant American film, and arguably the first masterpiece. At the same time, it's hard to relate to, both philosophically and, to modern eyes, artistically. Who do you write a review for? Is a rating for the film or for the audience? Or perhaps even for yourself? The fact is that there is artistic, technical, and historical merit to Birth of a Nation. The fact is it's all through a filter of racism is beside the point.

In terms of covering an expanse of history I'm more fond of other films, like Giant or Lawrence of Arabia. The Birth of a Nation really straddles the line between story and history, and that's where it's value lies. Its accuracy is suspect, its perspective is skewed, but understanding that such were the feelings of the people involved is the real lesson of thie film.

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