I honestly never thought I’d have the stomach to sit through The Birth of a Nation a second time, yet on 28 May 2015, that’s exactly what I did. It showed up in the list of silent films on my parents’ Netflix on Apple TV when I was house-sitting for a week recently, and I just felt myself pulled towards revisiting it. And I’m really, really, really glad I did.
The first time I saw the film was 21 May 2006, the night TCM premiered the long-lost Beyond the Rocks, along with showing more silent films than they usually do on Sunday nights. Prior to starting the Valentino films, they aired BOAN. I was so nervous and scared, my stomach was in knots. I was also very close to my 500th silent, and relieved BOAN only ended up as #495.
At this time, I was active on a message board which no longer exists, run by a rather rigid, reactionary admin with an extremely Victorian view of the world. I’m not talking about a woman who was merely very conservative, but a complete reactionary who wouldn’t respect any other POVs, said many insulting, offensive things, banned folks for no reason, defended McCarthyism, and drove away many venerable silent film scholars. She frequently interrupted great discussions of films to deliver an off-topic polemic. (See some evidence.)
Anyway, this admin and some of the other folks there were really pro-D.W. Griffith, and brushed off any objections to how racist BOAN is. Look, there’s being too PC, and there’s being genuinely shocked and offended by truly offensive, racist material. If you can watch that entire film and just calmly think, “Oh, that’s just how things were then,” without once feeling at all uncomfortable, there’s something wrong. I might cringe at stereotypical depictions of Native Americans or the serious identification of a woman as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name in an old film, but that won’t bug me if it’s just a small portion of the overall film. I was nervous the first time I watched The Jazz Singer, but I relaxed once I realized Al Jolson is only in blackface for a little bit, and that it’s very matter-of-fact, not at all offensive in a historical context. BOAN isn’t like that at all.
I had a huge chip on my shoulder when I first watched D.W. Griffith’s films, and this biased attitude also extended to Lillian Gish, whom I now love. I didn’t really start to have any sort of positive opinion towards Griffith till I saw his early Biograph shorts, which I highly recommend. My appreciation of Lillian Gish didn’t begin till I started watching her later MGM films. And honestly, there are more reasons besides BOAN why I disliked Griffith so much. He really beats viewers over the head with his Victorian moralizing, preachiness, oversentimentality, and extreme black and white view of the world, along with his “dear little one” characters.
Many times during my first viewing, I gasped and groaned, so in shock and horror of what I was watching. Going in, I was actually terrified I was going to throw up. But oddly enough, my recent second viewing was a bit more emotionally easy. It’s still a very challenging film to watch in the modern era, but this time around, I was more able to appreciate and admire it as a brilliant piece of storytelling, a gripping epic, a masterful milestone in cinematic history. I felt that the first time too, but I was just too overwhelmed by all the racism to focus on the bigger picture.
The worst thing about this film is how damn good it is. This is a film everyone needs to see at least once, particularly if you love silent cinema in particular or cinematic history in general.