The all chases scenes in The Birth of a

The Birth of a Nation directed D.W. Griffith is one of
the best debated silent films of the 20th century praised for its technological
advancements for its time. Based on the 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the
Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation reflected modern historical views of
the U.S. Civil War. Created by the first filmmaker to exploit the potential of
film editing, D.W. Griffith is recognized for many editing techniques that were
unheard of at the time, including: simultaneous action, close-ups, scenic long shot,
traveling “panning shot,” fade-in-fade-out, tracking shots, still-shots,
flashback, parallel editing and many more. Its improvements in early cinema are
commonly outdone by the racist depiction of blacks in the film, but many
important features of film making today can be linked back to Griffith’s film.

            The
Birth of a Nation was a twelve-reel propaganda film that told an epic tale
of the American Civil War by centering on two families who befriend each other
but are on opposite sides in the conflict. During Reconstruction, Stoneman,
Leader of the House and the head of the northern family, pushes through
legislation that gives rights to freed slaves, while the elder son of the
southern family helps start the Ku Klux Klan in response to outrages committed
in his town. D.W. Griffith designed shots ranging from classic sights of the
battles to intimate specifics of the characters’ lives. In certain scenes,
tracking shots were used by Griffith. For example, when the Klan races to save
the southern family, trapped in a cabin by attacking blacks, and to free the
heroine from the grasp of the villainous mulatto leader, who threatens her
virtue. In a scene like this, Griffith would mount his camera on a car to
create fast tracking shots before the galloping Klan members in the climatic liberation.
Another technique used in this scene is parallel editing. Parallel editing is
one of the basic principles behind all chases scenes in The Birth of a Nation. Parallel editing is when two or more
separate scenes are combined to give the impression that the separate actions
are happening concurrently. In one of the scenes in the film, the clansmen are
seen galloping into town and out to the cabin. In this scene, with the help of
an appropriate score, parallel editing shows separate actions scenes coming together
to give the viewer of the film the impression that the two scenes are happening
at the same time.

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Another important technique used
throughout the film was the angle in which scenes were filmed. For example, the
battle scene is filled with many different angles each with a specific purpose
as to why it was filmed in that angle. A wide shot of a battlefield tells the
audience that the characters are taking part of a large battle before taking
the shots at a closer up angle and only watching a few people fight. It gives
the audience a scope of the setting in which the action is taking place.
Another scene in which angles are a major aspect is when the southern son’s
return home. This scene is filmed at an oblique angle so that the doorway
conceals his mother and sister as they embrace him. Such understatement
enhances the emotional power of the moment. Other scenes that incorporated
angles was when Gus attempted rape of Flora and when the KKK rescues Elsie from
Lynch and of Ben’s sister Margaret. The breathtaking shot that starts close to
a huddling mother and children, high on a hillside, and then moves to the
advance of Sherman’s army, seen from the elevated family refuge, depicts the intimate
ravages of war (Film History). The shot of a former slave-owner, under siege by
a posse of freedmen for his son’s membership of the KKK, holding his grown
daughter by the hair and raising his pistol above her head, preparing to kill
her if the blacks breach the door, represents a very tragic moment in the film
that surpasses the main message of racism and prejudice that is portrayed in
this film. In one scene, blacks dressed as if extras in a minstrel show, drink
whiskey, sit barefoot and gouge on meat as they take their places in South Carolina’s
new legislature. The screen then follows to read with the words, “The Helpless
white minority”. D.W. Griffith uses these scenes, shot at these slanted and
rather different than customary angles, as a way to engage the audience in what
is going on in the film.

            Although close-up shots have been
used in earlier short films, Griffith uses close-up shots to focus on the more
subtle emotions of his actors and to get a closer look of their faces. He uses
the close-up shots to reveal intimate expressions and emotions felt by the
characters. Griffith realized that by moving the camera closer to his subject
into a close-up, more intimate details were revealed on the subject’s face,
personalizing the character’s expression in a much more valuable way. When
contrasted with close-ups, long shots had added value. One of the most
celebrated shots is the intimate view of a mother and her children weeping on a
hillside. Without a cut, via the opening of an iris and pan, Griffith slowly
reveals what the family watches: General Sherman’s devastating march. Griffith
successfully ties the personal to the historical in one shot. He also uses them
to direct a viewer’s attention to important parts of the story, for example,
the picture of Elsie Stoneman or the letter between the Cameron’s and
Stoneman’s.

            The
Birth of a Nation varies in color as the movie progresses, though
traditionally being called a black-and-white film. This is because D.W.
Griffith used color tinting for dramatic and psychological effects in sequence.
Early scenes in the south are filmed with a more sepia tone as life is peaceful
and harmonic, but later scenes are a harsh black and white as black soldiers
fill the streets and the clansmen come to break them up. It was also
interesting to me that D.W. Griffith used night photography by incorporating
the use of magnesium flares (Film History). He also used outdoor natural
landscapes as backgrounds unlike earlier films which were filmed in small
studios and sets like the “Black Maria”. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation employs various filming techniques and
editing styles that made the storyline flow seamlessly for audiences.
Griffith’s goal was to represent reality as he understood it. “The very essence
of his realism is open frames, complex staging’s, and multiple planes of
action, all of which suggest far more than Griffith’s descriptive title cards,
and his stunted politics, would themselves allow” (The New Yorker). He filmed a
world that was made to embody his point of view. To do this, he incorporated
many techniques.

            Though The Birth of a Nation was an important step in the history of
filmmaking, it was also made with an obvious racial bias. Roger Ebert, at first
reluctant to critique the film, says that “certainly Birth of a Nation is a film of great visual beauty and narrative
power, yet when it comes to his version of the Reconstruction era, he tells the
story of the liberation of the slaves and its aftermath through the eyes of a
Southerner who cannot view African Americans as possible partners in American
civilization” (Ebert). The Birth of a Nation
sparked protests, riots, and divisiveness since its release. Specifically, by
the NAACP which objected, to the film’s racist portrayal of African- Americans
and its glamorizing of the Ku Klux Klan, but probably the most important aspect
of the film’s legacy was how it prompted African-Americans to strive to create
their own films in which they could tell their own stories(Virginia.edu). Showings
of the film were picketed and boycotted from the start, due to its
controversial themes. The themes in “Birth of a Nation” concentrate on race,
class, gender, and region, the most influential and important theme being that
blacks are stupid, crazy men who only want one thing: white women. “It is
interesting to note that the scene-by-scene rhythm of the film almost
compulsively alternates the “courtship plots” with the others. One thing that
struck out to me in this film was the controversial character and message
driven plot that is portrayed. In the first part, love alternates with war. In
the second part, love alternates with revenge against the black usurpers. The
effect is to rivet our interest in a favorable romantic outcome while treating
the political parts of the plot, as mere trifling obstacles to the ultimate
consummation between Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman” (virginia.edu).  Conversely, whites are portrayed as the
“helpless white minority”. Griffith exaggerates true facts about confederate
soldiers not being able to participate in the government and courts of the
south after the civil war. By doing this it seems as if the south is being
taken over by savage blacks who are causing anarchy. The message that blacks
cause anarchy and only want white women is played up even more throughout the
film. The black soldiers are seen running through the streets terrorizing women
and children and looting anything they can get their hands on. Blacks are also
seen beating other blacks who don’t vote with the carpetbaggers. The Birth of a Nation is rooted in one
belief, that white people inherently deserve power over Black people. The story’s
primary intent surrounded the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and the racism
involved. It criticizes the North for exploiting its power over the South, yet
is also hypocritical in the sense that it supports the rampant abuse of power
by white Southerners. The film was used as propaganda to revive the Klan. The
film presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War, glorifying
the Ku Klux Klan and denigrating blacks.

            Birth
of a Nation is structured as a series of oppositions, north verses south, union
verses confederacy, peace verses war and of course black verses white. The
birth of a nation is clearly a racist film. This is demonstrated by the
portrayal of African Americans as violent, drunk, animal like beings, whose
criminal behavior make a necessary presence of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film,
after the civil war has given blacks the right to vote, African- Americans are
seen as lazy black characters taking over the nation’s capital by drinking,
smoking and subsequently taking over the entire government. In one scene, an
innocent white woman is accosted by a lustful black soldier. Even though she
tries to resist his advances, the soldier insists on attempting to rape her.
The scene then climaxes as the women is seen running and jumping off a cliff
because she rather kill herself than be forced to have sex with a black man. For
Griffith, the original sin of America was not slavery as much as it was the
mixing of the races. Much of the content in
The Birth of a Nation consisted of white people being saved by evil black
people. The two great villains of the film are described as mulattos, who are
people who wish to mix black blood with white. The central conflict is built
around the Civil War. A conflict not only about slavery but about the future
ethnic makeup of the country.

            Griffith was the most famous
director of this era. Today, many people overlook the impressive filmmaking
techniques of the time and see the film as a glorification of Southern white
supremacy, but the fact remains that Griffith’s work in film laid some of the
basic groundwork that is still seen in narrative film today. The film is a very
racial presentation of how the African Americans were portrayed by whites. Throughout
its three hours of film, African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy,
morally degenerate, and dangerous human beings. Yet the fact remains that D.W.
Griffith is welly deserving of the credits he is given for innovating most of
the major film techniques- something he encouraged in publicizing himself. 

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