Hollywood’s infamous birth: Birth of a Nation and Intolerance (1915-16)
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D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a landmark of world cinema and arguably gave birth to Hollywood on an economic level. A technical masterpiece said to have established the grammar of cinema, it is also an astonishingly racist film (and was considered so even in 1915), portraying black people as subhuman and the Ku Klux Klan as civilization-saving heroes.
Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages, was even more ambitious, telling four stories in four different time periods: the fall of Babylon, the life and passion of Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and a modern love story. While the film condemns intolerance, it is not Griffith’s apology for Birth of a Nation, but rather his self-defense against his critics.
In this episode James and Thomas discuss both films, trying to understand what sort of artist Griffith was and what his Founding Father status in Hollywood history might tell us about cinema as a medium of entertainment and emotional manipulation.
The Birth of a Nation is an exceedingly well-crafted but fundamentally immoral work which offers some food for thought about the power of cinematic rhetoric. Intolerance is included in the Values category of the Vatican film list, but James and Thomas find it to be an incoherent, empty spectacle whose attempt to attribute all of human tragedy to the single vice of “intolerance” falls laughably flat. (And it also has its immoral side, if less fundamentally.)
We hate to say it, but the earlier film is the superior one on the level of storytelling craft. If you don’t want to choose between racist and incoherent, though, watch Griffith’s later melodrama Broken Blossoms, which unlike Intolerance, actually does contradict the racism of his most famous film.
The Birth of a Nation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN_o3zeD81g
Broken Blossoms https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQXb89LXuJo
Music is The Duskwhales, “Take It Back”, used with permission. https://theduskwhales.bandcamp.com/
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