There was a time when I actually wished The Birth of a Nation were a lost film, and really, really hated D.W. Griffith. For better or worse, we can’t choose our own legacy, and for many people, BOAN will always be his legacy. For that reason alone, I can’t recommend BOAN as an ideal first silent, or an ideal introduction to Griffith. I highly recommended watching his brilliant Biograph shorts first, not one of his super-long, super-intense sagas.
Because I wasn’t introduced to his work properly, and had indeed avoided him out of fear, until I finally had no choice but for BOAN to be my first (proper) Griffith film, I had a huge chip on my shoulder about his films for such a long time. Had I only started at the right place, with the Biograph shorts or perhaps a film like Broken Blossoms or Sally of the Sawdust, I might have come to love and appreciate him so much sooner. My first Griffith film was actually The Battle of the Sexes (1928), but that was made so far after his prime, and is rather unrepresentative of his oeuvre.
Except for extreme exceptions, I don’t advocate censorship, either fully or selectively. We shouldn’t censor BOAN for the same reason we shouldn’t censor Triumph of the Will, Mein Kampf, or As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Objectionable content still has important lessons to teach, like how slick propaganda can capture hearts and minds into supporting a totalitarian, the roots of irrational hatred, and how to make music that’ll get everyone talking, both fans and haters.
If BOAN were a shoddily-made film, nothing more than racist propaganda, we wouldn’t still be talking about it and studying it 100 years later. The fact that we’re still discussing any film from 1915 is a major accomplishment, since most folks outside of my fellow silent film lovers can only name a handful of silents, and have only seen as many either. 1915 itself isn’t exactly known as a year loaded with classic films, like 1939 or 1927.
It’s chilling to think about my own great-grandparents potentially having cheered for the Klan when they saw this film, and nodding along with the racist tropes depicted as truth. But that’s exactly one of the reasons why it’s so vitally important to keep studying and watching this film. This is clearly extremely racist, racial content, yet it was seen as quite matter-of-fact in 1915, even among folks whose racial attitudes didn’t extend as far as joining the Klan and actively discriminating. Griffith himself was shocked by being called a racist and historical revisionist, unable to see the nose on his own face and so deeply steeped in the narrative he’d grown up imbibing.
When we hide something, we often make it seem more enticing. People who might never have been interested in seeing a film or reading a book are suddenly all gung-ho for it once it’s been banned, or news breaks of a controversy. I do feel, as Griffith later came to feel, that it’s not such a wise idea for younger people to see BOAN. We often experience things differently at each stage of life.
It’s not that someone under, say, a mature 16 can’t understand or like a book or film with more adult content. It’s just that it registers differently when our brains are more developed. Perhaps a double entendre sailed right over our heads at age 12, but in adulthood, it’s so obvious and hilarious. What seems to our adult selves as utter nonsense, not backed up by any reputable sources, seemed so logical and believable at age 15. Thus, it’s easier to understand BOAN in its proper historical context and not only focus on the racism.
A century later, this is very much a film that still matters. It’s not the easiest film in the world to watch, and no one should be forced to watch it, but sometimes it’s good to face our fears and do something which makes us uncomfortable (within reason). Deliberately avoiding something we’re afraid of or which makes us uncomfortable can make sense if it’s something like not having sex before we’re emotionally ready, or not going into a dangerous part of town after midnight. But when film, music, or literature challenges us and makes us uncomfortable, so much so we’re still talking about it 100 years later, then it’s done its job. Whether we love or hate it, we can’t deny the power of something which arouses such strong emotions and robust dialogue.