Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Birth of a Nation

The Clansman, later retitled The Birth of a Nation, is still considered a landmark of the American cinema. The film has been praised for its technical virtuosity and damned for its demeaning and racist depiction of black Americans. Birth was a kind of rite of passage for American movies, marking a transition from crude infancy to a robust adolescence. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer used a dazzling array of techniques to propel the story forward. Moving, tracking and panning shots gave new life to even static scenes. Crosscutting between two scenes built suspense, and the use of "cameo" profiles and close-ups gave the movie a new emotional intimacy.
Although Griffith did not invent these techniques, he used them in such brilliant and innovative ways that it seemed as if he had. The director was a master storyteller, and by 1914 he was at the height of his powers. Monumental in conception, epic in scope and narrative power, the movie influenced filmmakers for generations to come. The Birth of a Nation was pure Griffith, and every frame of celluloid bore his stamp.
David Wark Griffith, son of Jacob Wark Griffith, was born on January 22, 1875, in Floydsfork, later Crestwood, Ky. The older man, nicknamed "Roaring Jake," was a veteran Confederate colonel who had once commanded the 1st Kentucky Cavalry during the Civil War. Roaring Jake filled young David's head with nostalgic tales of dashing, gray-clad cavaliers defending the antebellum way of life.
The Confederacy was no more, and slavery had been abolished, but by 1880 most of the civil rights that blacks had enjoyed immediately after the war had been taken away by newly reestablished white supremacist state governments. The Peculiar Institution, chattel slavery, had been replaced by a kind of serfdom in which black sharecroppers, debt-ridden and disenfranchised, were relegated to second-class citizenship.
Jacob Griffith died suddenly when David was only 10. The old colonel had been badly wounded in the war, and there was speculation that the injuries had been responsible -- at least in part -- for his demise. In any case, Roaring Jake's passing caused quite a commotion, and his deathbed scene was forever etched in young David's memory.
In later years, the director took great pains to hide his true self from the public, adopting a patrician reserve that exuded an air of mystery. But when he described his father's death, he also unintentionally revealed his own deeply cherished core beliefs. When Griffith entered his father's bedroom, he later recalled, he was met by a scene of grief and lamentation: "Four old niggers were standing in the back at the foot of the bed weeping freely. I am quite sure they really loved him."
The unconscious racism and implied unquestioning acceptance of black inferiority in that statement reflect Griffith's view of black-white relations. Thirty years later, those attitudes would find new expression in The Birth of a Nation.
As a young man, Griffith tried a variety of jobs but nursed a secret ambition to become a great playwright. Initially, he became an actor, traveling across the country and appearing in stage productions of varying quality. Finally one of his plays was produced in 1907. Titled A Fool and a Girl, it was an embarrassing flop.
Faced with near destitution, Griffith turned to motion pictures as a source of income. The movies in the 1890s were cheap entertainment for the masses. Working-class people, many of them European immigrants crowded into urban slums, flocked to nickelodeons for a few minutes' escape from their daily toil. The early offerings were only about one reel long -- that is, about 12 to 14 minutes. By 1910 more middle-class people were attending movies, but many still held a deeply rooted prejudice against them as "cheap shows for cheap people."
Griffith shared these sentiments, at least at first, but then he began to see film in an entirely different light. He was among the first to grasp the potential of the movies -- their as yet untapped power to educate as well as entertain. The fledgling movie actor soon joined the Biograph Company in New York City, where in addition to appearing in front of the camera he wrote film scenarios. When Biograph's leading director became ill, Griffith was hired as a replacement.
The Adventures of Dollie, released in the summer of 1908, was Griffith's first directorial effort. Within a few years, the helmsman had his own "stock company," which included performers such as Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall and Lionel Barrymore. Eventually, however, Griffith broke from Biograph and formed a partnership with Harry and Roy Aitken of Mutual. The Aitkens would stay in their New York base, while Griffith would set up shop in Hollywood. He had done some filming on the West Coast before, but now the move would be more or less permanent. Many Biograph people followed Griffith, including Lillian Gish and cameraman Billy Bitzer, so there was no shortage of talent on hand.
All the pieces were falling into place; now what was needed was a subject worthy of Griffith's ambitions. A writer named Frank Woods introduced Griffith to a 1905 work titled The Clansman. It had achieved modest success as both a novel and stage play, and Woods was sure it would suit the screen. Griffith fully agreed and responded with alacrity. For him The Clansman was both inspired and inspiring, and it dealt with a subject close to his Southern roots.


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